A History of Climate Change Questions at Presidential Debates

Photo credit: the Baltimore Sun

On Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw recently posed the question as to why presidential and vice presidential debates in the 2012 election have ducked the question of climate change and how they and their administrations would address it. In neither of the ensuing debates was a question about climate change asked, even during the town-hall debate where all questions were asked by ostensibly undecided voters.

According to an article on ThinkProgress.com, two-thirds of voters see evidence of climate change and thus see it as a viable issue for discussion between presidential candidates.

I’ve been working at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an urban sustainability nonprofit in Chicago. Obviously, the lion’s share of CNT’s work is concerned, directly or indirectly, with climate change and so we have an interest in seeing the issue discussed by the potential leaders of our country. This post gives a history of the discussion of environmentalism and climate change at presidential debates in the last few elections. The point is not to make the case for any partisan groups, but to pose the question: why is such a fundamentally important issue being skirted now, when it’s more important than ever?

Though addressing climate change has always taken a back seat to other issues like defense and the economy, for the last twenty years, it’s been raised by at least one participant in nearly all of the debates. Perhaps due to Vice President Gore’s self-identification as an environmentalist, the issue of “environmentalism” was raised numerous times throughout all of the debates in 1992. Though this was back even before “climate change” was termed “global warming,” the problems were already becoming apparent, and candidates took their turns addressing the issue. President (then-Governor) Clinton listed environmental clean-up technologies as something he’d invest in as opposed to defense spending and an investment that would create jobs. President Bush pointed to Arkansas’ environmental record as evidence of Clinton’s lack of experience and effectiveness. And, during the vice presidential debate in 1992, environmentalism was raised repeatedly, with Gore making most of the statements.

The next election year also saw no questions in the presidential debates directly addressing the environment, though once again Clinton brought up the issue repeatedly. Unlike in 1992, though, his mentions of the environment were noncommittal, with no concrete solutions or plans. The VP debate that year, however, included the first direct question from the moderator to a candidate concerning the environment. Jim Lehrer asked Vice President Gore if he agreed with “some Democrats” that the environment would be in jeopardy if Senator Bob Dole were elected President. Gore responds in the affirmative and states that Clinton would protect the environment if reelected, and Dole’s VP candidate, Secretary Jack Kemp, states that Dole would as well.
In 2000, Vice President Gore was asked directly by Jim Lehrer once again about his stance on the environment. Gore responded by making the first mention of “global warming” at a presidential debate, and stating his conviction that the U.S. should take a “leadership role” in reversing climate change. The same question was posed to President (then-Governor) Bush, who pointed to Texas’ efforts to clean brownfield areas (underused industrial sites) as evidence for his own environmental credibility. Bush also pointed out that the Clinton administration continued expansion of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in one of Alaska’s pristine wilderness sites, stating that he agreed with this expansion. (Prudhoe Bay was the site of a major oil spill in March 2006.)

In 2004, the candidates were asked once again about their stances on the environment. President Bush was asked “to rate [him]self as an environmentalist” and he described his commitment to developing a hydrogen-powered car and his support for clean coal, and Senator Kerry was given an opportunity to respond to the comments President Bush made. No other mentions of the environment or climate change were made by moderators at any of the other debates in 2004, and all other mentions of climate change or the environment were in passing or as conclusions to lists of candidates’ priorities.

During our last election, Tom Brokaw asked Senator McCain and President (then-Senator) Obama how they would address climate change and the expansion of green jobs. Senator McCain responded that he believed that nuclear power and other alternate energy sources like hybrid, hydrogen, and battery-powered cars were necessary. He also claimed that President Obama did not have faith in nuclear energy, which Obama immediately denied in his response. Obama also pointed to solar, wind, and geothermal power as potential alternatives and stated that “we can’t drill our way out of the problem.” The next debate also included a question about the environment, though concerns about climate change were mostly used as a framing device for a question about the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil. During the VP debate, Governor Palin and Vice President (then Senator) Biden were also asked about the environment, and both pointed to clean coal, with Vice President Biden taking a strong stance that climate change is “man-made.”

So, if after twenty years of discussion about climate change, including twelve years of direct questions from the moderator, why has this year’s series of debates passed on the opportunity to ask President Obama and Governor Romney for real, substantive answers about climate change? CNT is not the only organization to pose this question: the League of Conservation Voters launched an online petition for a question about sustainability or climate change at the first debate.

Considering the debates have utterly failed to give either candidate the opportunity to give their position on climate change, I recommend that readers concerned about the environment become familiar with all candidates’ stances and voting histories. Here is a good resource for a starting point.

This post was originally written as a news post for CNT. I adapted it somewhat, but didn’t dispose of the neutral, nonpartisan language and tone in the body.

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