No Debate

The brief and embarrassing history of climate change in presidential debates.

Credit: Photo: Teresa/Flickr

Two incidents tell you everything you need to know about history of climate change in presidential debates.

During the third Democratic presidential primary between then Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley in 1999, an audience member shouted from the crowd, interrupting co-moderator Tavis Smiley:

“Your plans are to stop global warming. [inaudible] If you could answer that, I'd really appreciate it.”

The questioner was removed from the auditorium before he could clarify his question. We’ll never know exactly what he was trying to ask, but presumably it had something to do with measures to address climate change. Gore tried to answer.

“[I]t's a pretty good question,” said Gore. “I've brought up global warming about ten times during the debates that we've had…and it has never come up.”

“Maybe we’ll get to that,” Smiley responded.

Smiley knew they wouldn’t—and, of course, they didn’t. In fact, in the next election cycle in 2004, none of the presidential debate moderators asked about climate change.

Bob Schieffer of CBS boldly went where few moderators bother to go in the 2008 election. Here’s the exchange between Schieffer and Arizona Senator John McCain:

SCHIEFFER: Let's go to—let's go to a new topic. We're running a little behind. Let's talk about energy and climate control. Every president since Nixon has said what both of you...

MCCAIN: Climate change.

SCHIEFFER: Climate change, yes…we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Ugh. Come on, Schieffer, at least call it by its right name.

The current Democratic candidates for president participated in their first debate this week, following two debates for the top tier Republican presidential hopefuls. In those three gatherings, the moderators have asked one single question about climate change. In the Republican debate on September 16, moderator Jake Tapper asked about climate change denial. In the Democratic debate, the candidates had to keep bringing up climate change unprompted, because the moderators waited until nearly the end of the event to let a member of the public ask about climate change via video clip.

Let’s give it to our presidential debate moderators—at least they’re consistent.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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