When President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden meet on the debate stage next week, many West Coast wildfires will almost certainly still be raging. Moderator Chris Wallace should ask the candidates about climate change, an issue on which they are starkly divided.

Biden believes that climate change is an “existential threat” that demands immediate, far-reaching action — what scientists the world over have been saying for decades. Given Trump’s recent remarks to California officials, we shouldn’t expect much science from his administration — more of Trump’s Earth-is-flat promises that temperatures will magically “start getting cooler, you just watch.”

In good news, the eerie orange sky over San Francisco is returning to blue, and firefighters are making progress against several of the most significant wildfires. But, critically, that doesn’t mean the larger issue is going away.

Until recently, the U.S. mainstream media featured more climate silence than climate science. (Many foreign outlets have more regularly covered the climate story, and its impact, for years.) No questions were asked about climate change in the 2016 general election debates. When a landmark U.N. report warned in 2018 of calamitous consequences absent action in the next decade, only 22 of the 50 largest U.S. newspapers featured the story on their home pages.

More recently, when flames engulfed more than 44,400 square miles of Australia and drove thousands of people from their homes, news outlets filled with images of charred and displaced kangaroos, koalas and other wildlife. By one estimate, nearly 3 billion animals were killed. Many reports linked the fires to climate change. But the fires faded from news coverage — and public consciousness.

New catastrophes lead to spikes in coverage. But sometimes media outlets appear to have climate amnesia: Journalists forget to link the latest incidents to the overall threats, and in the periods between coverage spikes, the story goes largely unmentioned.

To be sure, some newsrooms have significantly ramped up climate coverage, partly because Greta Thunberg and other young people drew millions into the streets last year and forced media outlets to pay attention. Separately, a critical mass of news organizations, including the Nation — of which I am editorial director — and the Columbia Journalism Review, collaborated to form Covering Climate Now (CCNow) to encourage the media as a whole to do a better job of covering the defining story of our time. The initiative features some of the biggest news outlets, including the Guardian, NBC, CBS, Reuters, Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse. An example of it working: A year ago, CCNow partners published 3,640 climate stories in a single week, making “climate change” the most-searched term on Google. This week, CCNow outlets are collaborating on seven days of coverage, with a focus on the coming U.S. elections.

Even in our digital era, television remains the leading news source for Americans. This means that corporate behemoths and their numerous local affiliate stations are the arbiters of what most Americans learn about climate change. Underlying climate issues are often absent from quick-hit broadcast segments. For instance, in 50 stories on ABC, CBS and NBC about Hurricane Laura late last month, not one mentioned climate change, according to Media Matters, an outlet that studies journalism coverage and trends. It found that only 4 percent of broadcast news reports on the wildfires in August mentioned climate change.

Meanwhile, Fox News and other right-wing media continue to live in an alternate ecosystem, with Rush Limbaugh and others disputing a connection between the California fires and climate change.

Unlike business or political stories that media outlets may play up or down, climate change poses an existential threat to civilization as we know it. If those who control what the public consumes online, on television or in print fail to place the climate crisis in the center of our national conversation, it verges on media malpractice. Most news accounts shun terms such as “climate emergency” as unacceptably activist, but “emergency” is the word that more than 11,000 scientists have used to describe our collective predicament.

Several emergencies will drive voters this year: the pandemic, the economic downturn, racial inequity and the long-awaited reckoning. The climate emergency will not wait. Scientists say that we have a scant 10 years to cut heat-trapping emissions in half by transforming energy, agriculture, construction and other practices — or face indescribable catastrophe. This campaign season presents an opportunity for the media to do better at explaining this existential threat to the public and ask candidates at every level of government what they plan to do.

If a climate question isn’t asked at next week’s presidential debate, journalists should follow up. Candidates must be asked again, and again and again, how they will approach climate issues. Our lives, and those of our children, depend on it.

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