The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congratulations, second presidential debate: You nearly discussed climate change!

Donald Trump listens as Hillary Clinton answers a question from the audience during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

We knew that Donald Trump’s now-famous boast that a guy like him could simply “grab” women by the “p—y” would occupy an early chunk of tonight’s second presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. We knew, too, that Trump’s taxes would get a close look. For that matter, Clinton was due to give an accounting of her email scandal.

All of which left climate change, the issue on which future civilization hinges, with a slim chance of securing some representation in the 100-minute proceedings. Especially when you add in Trump’s bullying. Toward the end there, however, a guy named Ken stood up and posed this inquiry:

What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?

Was that a climate change question? Of course not. Here’s a climate change question:

“As president, What are the steps you will take to address climate change?” As it turns out, that was the fourth-most popular question submitted to the Open Debate Coalition, behind questions about background checks for gun sales, the Second Amendment and Social Security.

In any case, Trump answered the question first and focused on how the Environmental Protection Agency is killing the energy industry. Clinton came with something of a curveball, saying that China is illegally dumping steel in the United States and that Trump is using it to build his properties. She did, however, manage to mouth two words that didn’t get uttered at any other point all night: “So I have a comprehensive energy policy, but it really does include fighting climate change, because I think that is a serious problem.”

Bolding added to highlight the revelation that this term was mentioned in a debate. And that’s about it. Via transcript search, that’s precisely the third mention of “climate change” in this general election debate season; Clinton brought up the topic briefly in the first debate, when she alleged that Trump sees climate change as a Chinese hoax, and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine made a glancing mention last week in his face-off against Mike Pence.

So this was a cruel tease. It would be one thing if the primary debates had thoroughly tested the candidates on this pressing matter. They didn’t, as this blog noted back in February. Though a student one year ago at a CNN Democratic primary debate posed a good climate change question, other iterations were weak-kneed and failed to provoke a deep discussion of a problem that affects water, land, air, animals, humans — everything. As my colleague Greg Sargent noted a while back, here’s one policy area where the two candidates have contrasting views: Trump, “hoax”; Clinton, “defining challenge of our time.” Accordingly, a straight up question on the matter might just come alive around the podiums.

Media criticism of the debates tends to focus on what’s in front of us. On Sunday night, some were piling on debate co-moderator Martha Raddatz for jousting with Trump. True to his whining form, Trump himself at one point complained about the moderators, saying it was a 3-on-1 situation, with Raddatz, co-moderator Anderson Cooper and Clinton teaming up against him. Last week, CBS News’s Elaine Quijano sustained criticism for not letting the candidates hash things out, as she frequently interrupted so as to get all her issues addressed. And before that, NBC News’s Lester Holt supposedly didn’t insert himself sufficiently into the proceedings.

Whatever to all of that. Here’s a case of the most critical sort of media bias — bias against a complex and important issue that involves science, hard-to-check facts and every living organism.