Mind Games

Unless such a debate has a strong moderator such as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes–a moderator who won’t allow right-wing nonsense to go unchallenged–I don’t want to see a presidential debate focused on America’s pressing scientific issues:

A coalition of prominent scientific organizations and experts is calling for a presidential debate that is focused on today’s most pressing science-related topics, including climate change. To come up with potential questions for the candidates, they are turning to the American public. You can submit a question by clicking here.

ScienceDebate.org, a non-profit backed by Nobel Laureates and hundreds of other leaders in science, academics, business, and government, is running a campaign calling for at least one presidential debate that is exclusively focused on science, health, tech, and environmental issues. Now, in partnership with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geosciences Institute, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others, the group is crowdsourcing the best science-related questions.

Remember the September 7, 2011 Republican debate where then-Texas Governor Rick Perry viciously smeared climate scientists–and the debate moderators failed to push back on his rhetorical assault? I’d prefer not to see that sort of thing happen in a general-election debate–and it most certainly would happen, since the moderators would likely fear false allegations of “liberal bias” if they challenge the Republican candidate’s demonization of climate science.

With an unintimidated moderator, a science-focused presidential debate would be a fascinating thing to watch. I’d love to see the Democratic and Republican nominees discuss Bill McKibben’s recent call for a war on fracking–and if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton, I’d love to hear her response to (Bernie Sanders supporter) McKibben’s strong criticism of her perceived fondness for fracking:

We’ve become the planet’s salesman for natural gas—and a key player in this scheme could become the next president of the United States. When Hillary Clinton took over the State Department, she set up a special arm, the Bureau of Energy Resources, after close consultation with oil and gas executives. This bureau, with 63 employees, was soon helping sponsor conferences around the world. And much more: Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that the secretary of state was essentially acting as a broker for the shale-gas industry, twisting the arms of world leaders to make sure US firms got to frack at will.

To take just one example, an article in Mother Jones based on the WikiLeaks cables reveals what happened when fracking came to Bulgaria. In 2011, the country signed a $68 million deal with Chevron, granting the company millions of acres in shale-gas concessions. The Bulgarian public wasn’t happy: Tens of thousands were in the streets of Sofia with banners reading Stop Fracking With Our Water. But when Clinton came for a state visit in 2012, she sided with Chevron…In fact, the leaked cables show that the main topic of her meetings with Bulgaria’s leaders was fracking. Clinton offered to fly in the “best specialists on these new technologies to present the benefits to the Bulgarian people,” and she dispatched her Eurasian energy envoy, Richard Morningstar, to lobby hard against a fracking ban in neighboring Romania. Eventually, they won those battles—and today, the State Department provides “assistance” with fracking to dozens of countries around the world, from Cambodia to Papua New Guinea…

Clinton has at least tempered her enthusiasm for fracking some in recent debates, listing a series of preconditions she’d insist on before new projects were approved; Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has called for a moratorium on new fracking. But Clinton continues to conflate and confuse the chemistry: Natural gas, she said in a recent position paper, has helped US carbon emissions “reach their lowest level in 20 years.” It appears that many in power would like to carry on the fracking revolution, albeit a tad more carefully.

A proper moderator could also press the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to discuss former NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s new study warning of more severe destruction from human-caused climate change than previously feared, his relentless promotion of nuclear power as a solution to our energy needs, and his call for federal carbon fee and dividend legislation to reduce emissions. However, a science-focused debate with a milquetoast moderator will just be miserable.

UPDATE: More from Brad Friedman and Dr. Michael Mann and Chris Hayes.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.