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Ahead of CNN’s climate-focused town-hall marathon, which took place across seven hours last night and featured 10 Democratic presidential candidates back to back, Emily Tamkin, CJR’s public editor for CNN, had some advice for the network. The moderators, Tamkin said, should take it as given that the climate is in crisis, make the candidates prove that they understand how to address that fact, probe their past records, and move beyond facts and figures to illustrate the real-world impact of climate change on people’s lives. Such steps offered CNN “a chance to significantly better its televised coverage of the climate,” Tamkin said. Otherwise it risked “airing the equivalent of an article from 2009.”
How did the network do? The town hall was a mixed bag, Tamkin says. “In many ways, the moderators themselves slipped back into familiar frames. What is the sacrifice going to be? Are we going to have to drive electric cars? Are you going to take our meat away?” she said in an email. “But the people CNN called on to ask—who were chosen by the network, so that’s to their credit—actually hit the marks that climate/energy reporters told me they were looking for. People from climate affected areas asked questions in ways that made it tangible to them. Activists asked about candidates’ records. Students asked questions that were grand enough that people didn’t get lost in the details but specific enough that candidates were called upon to demonstrate their understanding.”
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Tamkin wasn’t the only journalist to criticize the performance of the moderators. “A lot of the CNN questions are framed in such a way that they assume the solutions to climate change are a bigger threat to existing systems than climate change,” Kendra Pierre-Louis, a climate reporter atThe New York Times, tweeted. “Where is the evidence of that?” At times, candidates seemed frustrated by that framing. When Wolf Blitzer asked Andrew Yang if all Americans would have to drive electric cars in the future, Yang snarked back, “Electric cars is not something youhaveto do. It’s awesome.” Elizabeth Warren rolled her eyes at a question, from Chris Cuomo, about the appropriateness of the government imposing energy-efficient light bulbs on consumers. “This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about,” she said. “They wanna be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70 percent of the pollution… comes from three industries” (building, electric power, and oil).
Not all the night’s questions were bad, however; many of them communicated the full urgency of the climate crisis, the science behind it, and the nuances of how we might respond, winning praise from climate scientists, activists, and reporters. The moderators repeatedly mentioned the immediate context of Hurricane Dorian (in general, climate change makes hurricanes worse), bucking the depressing trend of top outlets failing to mention climate change in their coverage of extreme weather events. They used visuals—of Dorian and other climate disasters—to good effect. And, as Tamkin notes, audience questions were generally well-framed, helping viewers toward the understanding that climate change doesn’t begin and end with the weather. One questioner asked Julián Castro about environmental racism, the idea that communities of color are most vulnerable to a shifting climate. Another asked Castro if there was any moment in his career that he regretted, from a climate standpoint. Castro stood silent, mulling the question, for 10 seconds. Compared to the clamor of the Democratic debates—where some whole answers lasted 10 seconds—the thoughtfulness was refreshing.
In the grand scheme of things, theexistenceof a seven-hour forum devoted solely to the climate crisis—in prime time on a major network—was a step forward. “Just seeing the words ‘Climate Crisis’ in red on screen is a victory for our movements,” the writer and climate campaigner Naomi Klein tweeted, referring to CNN’s branding; the meteorologist Eric Holthaus called the town hall “unbelievably hopeful.” The challenge for CNN—and all its counterparts in the mainstream media—is to sustain this high level of attention.
Principally, last night further underscored the need for a Democratic climate debate. Such events often descend into contrived confrontations and viral “moments”; at their best, however, they offer voters dynamic comparisons between competing philosophies that don’t translate effectively to a back-to-back forum. And, like it or not, debates generate an avalanche of hype. The reaction to last night’s town hall has not been of the same magnitu
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