MEMO: It’s Not Enough to Just Ask About Climate

TO:             Interested Parties
FROM:      John Podesta, Climate Power 2020 
RE:             It’s Not Enough to Just Ask About Climate

When Donald Trump and Joe Biden take the stage this evening, it will be likely the first time in history that climate change has been an announced topic during a presidential debate. We’ve gone back to 1996, and never before has the crisis been given a dedicated segment.

Before the first debate, it had been two decades since moderators asked candidates questions about the climate crisis during a presidential debate. With the decision to make climate a standalone topic, it shows the politics of climate have changed and this crisis will shape the outcome of the 2020 elections. 

But while it is important that climate is a topic, the type of questions asked are even more important.

In past debates, we’ve only seen climate questions that focus on whether a candidate believes in science or not. This allows climate deniers a window to cast false doubt on the fact the climate crisis is here and Americans are living with and dying from the consequences. Questions on policy are too often framed as a choice between economic growth or clean energy — clinging to outdated and wrong assumptions that investments in clean energy and climate action would not spur new good-paying jobs and grow the economy. Our country’s centuries-long history of climate racism is outright ignored, as are the impacts Black, Brown, and Indengious individuals face because of toxic air and polluted water.

As climate fires rage in Colorado and across the West the Gulf Coast struggles to recover from a record-shattering hurricane season, and droughts and extreme heat put the health of communities at risk, people need to know what the candidates will do about it. Moderators and the media must press all candidates on their plans to take climate action and address environmental injustices. It is past time to treat the climate crisis as seriously as this existential challenge demands. 

Below is background information that might be helpful when covering climate questions in tonight’s debate:


The Problem: It has been the policy of the U.S. government for decades that man-made climate change is real, but climate questions are still posed as to whether a candidate believes in the science, allowing climate deniers to cast false doubt on the fact the climate crisis is here and already harming families across the country. This most recently happened during the vice presidential debate between Sen. Harris and Vice President Pence.

The Facts: There is no debate over the science of climate change. We’ve known for decades climate change is a threat to our ways of life. We cannot give science deniers a platform to spread disinformation and lies that undermine the role of science in our country, especially during the height of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 individuals in the United States. Instead of giving candidates a window to deny facts, voters need to hear the role science and experts will play in the next administration.

  • The overwhelming majority of climate scientists (97%) agree that humans are causing climate change.
  • The government recognized climate change as a man-made phenomenon in the early 1960s.  Advisors of Lyndon B. Johnson recognized that if CO2 levels continue to rise at present rates, it is likely that noticeable increases in temperature could occur.


The Problem: Climate action questions are only poised choice between clean energy and economic growth. Pitting these two issues against one another, however, ignores the reality of what the climate crisis will cost our country in terms of growth and jobs in the coming decades. 

The Facts: The climate crisis is one of the largest looming economic threats to our country’s economic security. Instead of focusing on the costs of new investments, both President Trump and Vice President Biden should be forced to answer how they’d overt an economic downturn caused by climate change and constant billion-dollar disaster response emergencies.

  • Two separate reports have warned of a potential loss of as much as 10% of GDP annually from the United States economy by the end of the century due to climate change. That’s more than twice the impact of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
  • Our economy will be hurt by energy costs that will go up under climate change, by as much as $30 billion per year by mid-century as temperatures rise.
  • More on the economic costs of climate inaction can be found here.


The Problem: Clean energy jobs are treated as almost mythical, while Big Oil has been allowed to frame the debate in a way that ignores that old energy jobs cost the country billions in oil and gas subsidies, are anti-worker, harm the health of employees, and are decreasing because of economic impetuses unrelated to climate change.

The Facts: Clean energy is the fastest growing industry in America, and clean energy jobs pay well above the national average, have good benefits, and can’t be outsourced to other countries. Trump should be asked to account for the fact that his war on clean energy and the mishandling of the pandemic may have cost the U.S. up to 1.1 million clean energy jobs. What is his plan to bring those jobs back?

  • More research on clean energy jobs can be found here.


The Problem: Climate change questions are near exclusively posed as questions on science and jobs. The widespread impacts on health are widely ignored or diminished when candidates are asked to detail their views on the crisis.

The Facts: The climate crisis is here and far too many are already living with and dying from the consequences of inaction. How are both candidates planning to address the suffering caused by disease, illness, and even death caused by pollution, climate change-fueled disasters, toxic water, and exposure? We cannot rely on future plans to clean the air or water supplies when people are suffering today.

  • Fossil fuel pollution affects our air quality and causes 230,000 premature deaths in the US every year. Air pollution has been on the rise under Trump. The Associated Press found there were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America in both 2018 and 2017 than there were on average from 2013 to 2016.
  • More search on the health impacts of climate change can be found here, as well as additional background information on the disproportionate harm that Black Americans, Latinos, women, and children face.


The Problem: Environmental justice and climate racism are outright ignored when candidates are asked to discuss the climate crisis and racial justice in this country. 

The Facts: For decades, Black and Brown communities have borne the brunt of environmental racism. Too often, frontline communities intentionally became dumping grounds for hazardous materials, landfills, waste treatment facilities, as well as polluting facilities like oil and gas refineries and coal-fired power plants. Does President Trump acknowledge the impacts of climate racism on communities of color and how does Joe Biden plan to address the systemic issues that have allowed for decades of environmental injustices?

  • A report from the NAACP, Clean Air Task Force, and National Medical Association found Black Americans are 75% more likely to live in fenceline communities that border polluting facilities like oil and gas refineries.
  • Trump used the pandemic as an excuse to roll back 69 environmental protections. Trump waived environmental safeguards, giving refineries and industrial facilities an “open license to pollute.
  • More research on the disproportionate harm climate changes causes Black, Brown, and Indengious Americans can be found here.