Hillary Clinton affirmed her commitment to fighting climate change, while Donald Trump pledged to take advantage of what he called "clean coal" stores that will last a thousand years, in response to a question on energy policy in Sunday night's presidential debate.
Climate change was treated as an afterthought, despite a campaign by environmental activists urging moderators to press the candidates on the issue—especially on a weekend that saw the southeast U.S. coast battered, and Haiti devastated, by the extreme weather conditions from Hurricane Matthew.
The debate focused on topics that drove much of the presidential campaign coverage over the weekend, in particular the revelation of a video in which Trump made lewd and aggressive comments about women.
The query on energy came near the end of the contentious evening, designed in a town-hall style with undecided voters reading many of the questions. The energy question didn't mention climate change but was focused on the nation's production of energy. "What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs," a member of the audience asked, "while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly, and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?"
Republican Trump, answering first, launched into an attack on environmental regulators. "Energy is under siege by the Obama administration, under absolute siege," he said. "The Environmental Protection Agency is killing these energy companies.
"Now, I'm all for alternative forms of energy, including wind, including solar, but we need much more than wind and solar," he said.
"Hillary Clinton wants to put all the miners out of business," Trump claimed. "There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country."
He also spoke of the fracking boom and pledged to continue to encourage it: "Now we have natural gas and so many other things because of technology. Over the last seven years, we have found tremendous wealth right under our feet. I will bring our energy companies back. They'll be able to compete, they'll make money, they'll pay off our national debt," Trump said.
In sum, it was a repetition of Trump's all-of-the-above, drill-baby-drill "America first" energy policy. And it continued his denunciation of the "war on coal" that he and his running mate have articulated as they dismiss the climate crisis as a meaningful issue.
Democrat Clinton, as she did often during the evening, walked close to the questioner to answer and said to him that it sounds as though he works in the energy industry. (He works as an operator at a coal plant in Illinois.) She said it was good that the U.S. was energy independent "for the first time ever," but said the Middle East still controls the price of oil.
Clinton then turned to alternatives, beginning with natural gas, a sign that she, too, favors the all-of-the-above approach to fossil fuels.
"We are...producing a lot of natural gas, which serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels, and I think that is an important transition," Clinton said. "We have got to remain energy independent. That gives us a lot more freedom and power than to worry about what goes on in the Middle East."
"I have a comprehensive energy policy," Clinton told the questioner, "but it really does include fighting climate change, because I think that is a serious problem. And I support moving to more clean, renewable energy because I believe we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower."
Clinton said that her policy included a plan to revitalize coal communities along the way: "I want to make sure we don't leave people behind."
Some climate activists put out statements immediately after the debate expressing disappointment that the global crisis had been given short shrift. "We finally got a question about energy policy in the 89th minute of the debate, although it left out any mention of climate change," said 350 Action Executive Director May Boeve. Nevertheless, Boeve said the answers revealed the "fault lines" in the election. "Trump doubled down on fossil fuels, while Hillary talked about a clean energy future that doesn't leave anyone behind."
Boeve did take issue with Clinton's reference to natural gas as a bridge fuel: "It's just a fast lane to more climate destruction," she said. But she added that the group would work for her election: "350 Action will do everything we can to defeat Trump and then get to work pushing Hillary Clinton to move our country off all fossil fuels, including natural gas."
Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard likewise lamented the debate's handling of the subject. "The candidates spent very little time talking about climate change during tonight's debate but it is on the minds of so many Americans, especially as Hurricane Matthew continues to take a heavy toll here and in Haiti," she said in a statement. "Climate change demands the attention of both candidates and their parties, and it is shameful that it was given so little."
Environmental and social activist groups, led by the League of Conservation Voters and Media Matters for America, a media watchdog grop, organized a social media drive that gathered 150,000 signatures urging moderators to bring up the topic.
"This summer, the climate crisis has fallen right into America's front yards—from devastating floods in Louisiana to damaging droughts and sweltering heat, we are feeling the impacts of climate change every day," said the environmentalists' petition. "Yet according to a recent Media Matters study, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox collectively spent five percent less time covering climate change in 2015 despite landmark actions to address global warming."
Four questions on climate and energy were voted into the top 30 questions in the online poll organized by the Open Debate Coalition. The organization, started in 2008 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and progressive and conservative groups, has pushed for a debate format that allows for crowdsourced questions. The moderators of Sunday's debate had agreed to "consider" the 30 most upvoted questions on the site. More than 3.8 million votes were recorded for some 15,900 questions.
"What are the steps you will take to address climate change?" was the fourth most popular question on the site. It received 46,470 up votes, coming behind two queries on guns and one on Social Security.
The moderators asked one question from the online forum, about new Clinton emails posted on Wikileaks.
The high priority that poll participants gave to climate change contrasts with the topic's near invisibility during the campaign. Trump's only public statements on climate change were regarding a tweet he sent in 2012 claiming global warming was a hoax invented by the Chinese.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
During the candidates' first debate on Sept. 26, Clinton brought up Trump's hoax statement as an example of the contrast between the two candidates. After Trump responded bluntly that it wasn't true, his 2012 post became the most retweeted tweet during the debate.
CNN columnist John Sutter has called climate change "the most important issue almost no one is talking about this campaign season." And New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on Friday that it would be "almost criminally irresponsible" for the debate moderators to ignore it. "There is, quite simply, no other issue this important," he wrote.
After last week's vice presidential debate ended with only a brief mention of climate change, Heather Hargreaves, vice president of NextGen Climate, a political group run by Clinton supporter Tom Steyer, said in a statement: "Voters rely on debate moderators and the media to hold the candidates accountable for their views—a clear debate on the differences between the candidates' climate policies is vital in helping inform citizens who will be making critical choices for their futures on November 8th."
Although President Obama and his Republican opponent John McCain were asked about climate change by an audience member in their 2008 town hall debate, global warming did not come up in the 2012 presidential debates. Clinton and her primary opponent Bernie Sanders faced off extensively on climate and energy in an April debate. But Media Matters noted that Trump did not have to field a single climate change question through 11 GOP primary debates. He has not had to address his climate denial in media interviews.
TV news coverage leading up to the debate focused on the revelations of recordings of Trump, which touched off a crisis in the Republican party. Some prominent Republicans withdrew their endorsements of him and the GOP suspended its Trump campaign activities.
Environmental scientist Peter Gleick, who has been calling for more attention to climate change in the campaign, tweeted before the debate that a climate question might come as a welcome relief for Trump.
I'd love for there to be a real question at the debate tonight about #climate, but at this point so would Trump.
— Peter Gleick (@PeterGleick) October 9, 2016
Here are the other three climate and energy questions that made it into the top 30 on the Open Debate Coalition's website:
Ranked 10th most upvoted: What is your plan to combat climate change & build a green economy?
Ranked 14th: What will you do to protect the rights of Native Americans and their land? ( related to the fight over the Dakota Access oil pipeline)