Climate Silence: How Fossil Fuel Industry Power Works to Keep Climate Out of the Presidential Debates and What to Do

About 1 percent of the questions asked at the presidential debates have concerned climate change.

This is an outrage.

Humanity faces an existential crisis, and over the course 21 debates, debate moderators are only able to manage 12 questions on climate out of well over 1,000.

It's hard to fathom.

What accounts for this epic failure?

Those directly responsible are plainly the moderators themselves, and the media more generally. It doesn't fit with media culture that the climate crisis is unfolding slowly in human terms (as compared, say, to the suddenness of a mass shooting), even if it is proceeding along a terrifyingly fast geological timetable. And because responsible scientists are reluctant to attribute any particular extreme weather event to changing climate, even the weather disasters on which the media thrives can't be framed simply as climate disasters. Of course, these explanations, such as they are, are no excuse for the media's extraordinary failure on climate.

But a lot more is behind the debate questions than these problems with the media.

The pathetic number of climate questions reflects the fossil fuel industry's success in framing the climate debate.

Now, we're way beyond the point where serious people can doubt that climate change is happening, accelerating and posing an unparalleled threat to the planet and the humans who live on it. Maybe some of the ideologically extreme debate moderators have convinced themselves that there's uncertainty, who knows. But that's surely not the case for most of them.

What the moderators likely do believe is this: No matter who is president, nothing, or virtually nothing, is going to happen on climate change policy.

In other words, while the fossil fuel industry has lost the climate policy debate on the merits - indeed, the days of industry climate denial are, for the most part, behind us - the industry continues to crush climate realists on the politics.

And that is due to the industry's political influence, political power and political spending.

Over the last 10 years, dirty energy companies have spent $1.7 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions, according to a tabulation by Oil Change International.

A recent Maplight analysis found that U.S. senators voting against a sense of Congress resolution that human activity significantly contributes to climate change received seven times as much from the fossil fuel industry as those voting for the resolution. (You'll be disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that the resolution was defeated 50-49; it would have required a two-thirds vote to pass.)

If the Senate can't even pass a majority vote that human-induced climate change is real, then it's pretty obvious that legislation designed to drive the needed dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas has dim prospects indeed.

We need to face up to the fact that there is only one leg on which climate denial stands: money. The polluters give and spend money to create false doubt. The polluters give and spend money to buy political influence. The polluters give and spend money to keep polluting. That's it. That's it. Not truth, not science, not economics, not safety, not policy, and certainly not religion, nor morality. Nothing supports climate denial. Nothing except money. But in Congress, in this temple, money rules; so here I stand, in one of the last places on Earth that is still a haven to climate denial.

What to do?

Well, as regards the debate questions, you can ask the moderators directly to ask climate questions of the presidential candidates. According to the moderators themselves, several of the miniscule dozen questions asked about climate were in response to requests on social media. Thursday's CNN-hosted Democratic debate will be moderated by Wolf Blitzer (@wolfblitzer), with additional questions from Dana Bash (@DanaBashCNN) and Errol Louis (@errollouis).

Taking on Dirty Energy's political power is obviously a far bigger challenge, and the problem won't be solved in the immediate term. Winning the far-reaching political reform needed to make elected officials responsive to the people rather than polluters will require a robust social movement.

The good news is that, having gained steam in recent years, the movement is erupting into a powerful new phase. Four hundred people were arrested on Monday as part of Democracy Spring, one of the largest civil disobedience actions ever at the U.S. Capitol. More arrests have continued through the week. On Sunday, April 17, thousands will gather at the Capitol for a Democracy Awakening rally and march to rescue our democracy. And on Monday, April 18, hundreds more will risk arrest.

Something important and historic is happening in Washington, and if you can, you'll want to be part of it. There's no question about that.