Too often, journalists ask politicians questions about climate change that only reinforce polarized and misleading messages about climate science. That didn’t happen last night.
In the final Florida gubernatorial debate between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked an excellent question about climate change that elevated the debate. Previously, Gov. Scott had answered a question about climate change by saying he’s “not a scientist.” Here’s Tapper’s question (via Lexis-Nexis):
Governor Scott, I want to move on to one other job, that scientists in the state are very concerned about — people who live near the beach are very concerned about climate change. Whenever you’re asked about whether or not climate change is caused by men in part or in whole, you say you’re not a scientist.
But you are a governor. Doctors advise you on Ebola. Economists advise you on the economy.
Why are you so reluctant to believe the overwhelming majority of scientists who say that man contributes to climate change?
To his credit, Gov. Scott didn’t challenge the science in his response. He and Crist argued instead about who would accomplish more on adaptation and whether or not the state should prioritize reducing emissions.
Tapper’s question, and the candidate’s answers, helped inform voters about what the candidates would actually do about climate change, if elected. The debate therefore didn’t repeat tired, discredited arguments about climate science. Credit is also due to several scientists who sat down with the governor earlier this year to brief him on climate science.
Asking politicians what they want to do, not what they think
Nevertheless, it’s easy for politicians to dodge, even when they’re asked good questions about the science. Over the past few years, journalists have asked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie whether or not he thinks climate change caused Sandy several times, for instance. When NBC’s Matt Lauer asked an informed, pointed question about Sandy and sea level rise, Gov. Christie still answered by saying there was no definitive proof of a link and even dismissed scientists’ work as an “esoteric theory.” (See his response at the 3:30 mark here.)
A better question for journalists at the time might have been to ask the governor how he was accounting for sea level rise in the state’s rebuilding plans. That’s more relevant to his job, after all, and it’s probably the area where climate science can do the most to inform public policy along the Jersey Shore. It’s a question that still needs asking — and answering — today.
While there’s probably no perfect way to ask politicians about climate change, it’s clear that asking them about their plans – and anticipating their dodges – is a good way to keep the public informed about where they stand on the decisions that matter.
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