A brief sample of recent climate news: record-setting heat waves, including a 121-degree day in Los Angeles; apocalyptic wildfires up and down the West Coast, killing dozens and draping much of the continent in smoke; an August derecho that laid waste to much of the state of Iowa; five tropical cyclones forming at once in the Atlantic for only the second time in recorded history. Oh, and a new report finding that the consequences of rising temperatures are likely to be even worse than prior predictions.
Don’t expect any of that to come up when Joe Biden and Donald Trump take the stage for the first presidential debate next week. On Tuesday, the debate’s moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace, announced his planned list of topics. It includes the Covid pandemic, the Supreme Court, and the economy, but you will search in vain for any mention of the environment or climate change.
To which I say, on behalf of humanity: You have got to be kidding me.
Counting the time devoted to climate change in presidential debates has become a fatalistic, every-four-years ritual, like rooting for England in the World Cup. The moderators didn’t ask a single question about climate change during the three 2016 debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; according to Grist, the topic was discussed for about five and a half minutes total, mostly in passing. Somehow, 2012 was even worse: zero minutes on climate change. (The 2000 debates were a relative high-water mark, featuring 14 whole minutes of climate talk between arch-environmentalist Al Gore and Texas oilman George W. Bush.)
This has always been morally indefensible. But it also long reflected a broader fact about US politics: People don’t care very much about climate change. For years, polls consistently showed that the issue was a low priority for most Americans, far beneath topics like the economy, immigration, and healthcare. This was especially true when pollsters narrowed their sample to likely voters. As recently as 2017, the people who cared the most about environmental issues were up to 50 percent less likely to vote than the rest of the electorate. As one political consultant told me a few years ago, from the perspective of a campaign, “If you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice, and if you don’t have a voice, then we don’t care.” That dynamic helped make climate change politically invisible.
In 2020, however, that’s no longer true. Poll after poll shows that more Americans care about climate change than ever before, to the point where the environment is on par with “kitchen table” issues like education and taxes. Just three years ago, only 38 percent of respondents told Pew that climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. As of February 2020, that number had climbed to 52 percent. Polling by Yale and George Mason last fall found that “global warming” was the fifth highest priority among voters, above issues like abortion and immigration. (In a version of the poll conducted in April, with the pandemic in full swing, it had fallen to ninth place—still pretty high.) Around the same time, a nationwide poll by the Environmental Voter Project found that the gap between voters and non-voters was closing. The overall trend line is clear: Climate change has finally taken its place among Americans’ top political priorities.
This shift has been driven almost entirely by Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents; Republican voters generally still don’t care much about climate change, even if they acknowledge it’s real. Still, the issue has reached a level of salience that ought to qualify it for the debate stage. The question is whether any of this year’s debate moderators will pick up on that fact. The early evidence isn’t great. Fox News’s Chris Wallace does have one 15-minute segment blocked off for “The Trump and Biden Records,” but there’s little reason to expect him to dwell on climate policy. (One imagines it will nonetheless be more enlightening than the disconcertingly titled “Race and Violence in Our Cities” segment.)
Let’s not exaggerate the importance of the debates. Political science suggests they don’t matter very much, especially when voters are as locked into their preferences as they are this year. That said, they draw a tremendous audience—a record 84 million people watched the first Trump-Clinton debate on television alone—and so remain the last best chance to expose that strange species, the still-persuadable voter, to what the candidates stand for and where they differ.