When the list of topics for the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was announced by moderator Chis Wallace, there was one key issue missing: climate change. To be sure, the subjects that Wallace wanted to focus on, including COVID-19, the Supreme Court, and Black Lives Matter, were important ones this campaign season. But coronavirus aside, is there any issue more crucial to Americans right now than the life-altering impact of climate change, from the relentless, devastating fires in the West to the freakish sequence of hurricanes battering the Gulf Coast?
Writing in Wired, Gilad Edelman called the omission “morally indefensible,” but added that it was hardly new when it came to presidential debates: “The moderators didn’t ask a single question about climate change during the three 2016 debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump,” he wrote, noting that “the topic was discussed for about five and a half minutes total, mostly in passing.” He added: “Somehow, 2012 [between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney] was even worse: zero minutes on climate change.”
Wallace did unexpectedly bring up the topic of climate change in the final 10 minutes of the Sept. 29th debate, looking almost weary from the 80 chaotic ones that had preceded them. “I’d like to talk about climate change,” Wallace abruptly said, cutting off yet another acrimonious exchange between the two men. Speaking directly to Trump, Wallace said, “What do you believe about the science of climate change, sir? Do you believe that human pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, contribute to climate change?”
Of course Trump’s response was both defensive and incoherent and Biden’s was lost in the fog of the next day’s coverage, which mostly focused on Trump’s incessant interrupting of the vice president and his cruel taunting of Hunter Biden’s history of substance abuse.
Things didn’t get much better at the dueling town halls a week after that—Biden was asked just one question, about fracking, and Trump was asked none at all—leaving many climate activists disappointed. And, of course, the issue of climate change got short shrift at the Supreme Court hearings last week, when Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett refused to even acknowledge its existence, to the amazement of her questioner, Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president.
But this Thursday, climate change will finally be on the official agenda when NBC’s Kristen Welker moderates the second and final debate between Trump and Biden in Nashville. In the list of topics announced by the Commission on Presidential Debates, climate change was one of six the candidates were told to expect, along with fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, national security, and leadership. Each topic will be given roughly 15 minutes.
Immediately after the topics were announced, the Trump campaign hit back, saying that the final debate was supposed to be solely about foreign affairs, and the change was made to benefit their opponent. In a letter to the Commission (which he called “the Biden Campaign Commission”), Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien accused the former vice president of being “desperate to avoid conversations about his own foreign policy record” and the commission of trying to “insulate Biden from his own history.” Wrote Stepien: “The Commission’s pro-Biden antics have turned the entire debate season into a fiasco and it is little wonder why the public has lost faith in its objectivity.”
The Biden campaign responded by again accusing the president and his campaign staff of twisting the facts. “The campaigns and the Commission agreed months ago that the debate moderator would choose the topics,” said a Biden spokesman. “The Trump campaign is lying about that now because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous Covid response. As usual, the president is more concerned with the rules of a debate than he is getting a nation in crisis the help it needs.”
There was another change to the debate structure that the Trump camp is not happy about: At the start of each new topic, each candidate will have two minutes of uninterrupted time to speak; the other candidate’s mic will be shut off during that period. The rest of the time will be open discussion—and the microphones will not be muted. In a statement announcing the decision, the Commission on Presidential Debates said it determined that it was “appropriate to adopt measures intended to promote adherence to agreed-upon rules.”
The change was clearly devised in response to widespread criticism of the first debate, when it spiraled out of control as Trump repeatedly cut Biden off when he tried to answer Wallace’s questions. That face-off was widely panned as the “worst presidential debate in history.”
The Trump campaign again complained, without evidence, that the two-minute rule was invoked to aid Biden, and when asked about it by reporters, Trump said: “I’ll participate. I just think it’s very unfair.”
The debate begins at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday and will run for 90 minutes without commercial interruption. It will be carried by all the major news and cable networks and can also be streamed for free on YouTube and other outlets.