Presidential debate stage preparations in 2016
Credit: Brian Allen/Voice of America
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Three debates between the presidential candidates and one between the vice presidential candidates are scheduled before Americans vote for the next U.S. President on November 3.

In past elections, debates have largely ignored issues like climate change and global pandemics. This year, it’s likely to be a different story. Americans want to know how the next President of the United States intends to protect them from the twin scourges of climate disruption and COVID-19. How well do the candidates understand these issues? Is their understanding grounded in science or in wishful thinking? What are their plans for responding to the relentless warming of the planet, and to a virus that has already taken more than 185,000 American lives, with many more coming?

This year’s debates might be more informative if moderators and questioners begin to prepare such questions now. Let’s phrase them carefully, think about what the candidates might say in response, and craft follow-ups. The goal is simple – to bring into the open real differences in the candidates’ understandings, positions, and policies. Let’s expose the bright dividing lines on these important issues, while avoiding “gotcha” questions that generate more heat than light.

Here we offer a short list of sample questions on issues related to climate, the environment, public health, and the value of science. Each question comes with a few sentences to add context and possible follow-up questions.

Question 1

Context: The United States has historically been a leader in international efforts to solve global problems like climate change, arms control, and infectious diseases. Some express concern that we have in many ways given up that role.

Question: Please give an example of a global science-based issue of such importance that you would give it your time and personal capital as president.

Follow-up: How would you organize, lead, and promote international collaboration in confronting the issue you identified?

Question 2

Context: In the United States, as in the world, low-carbon energy sources are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and authoritative data and forecasts see renewables as being a promising source for well-paying jobs in the future. Countries capable of providing inexpensive low-carbon energy will be the economic leaders of the 21st century.

Question: Many experts say developing and implementing renewable energy presents an enormous opportunity to grow jobs and the economy. Do you agree? If so, how would you make the U.S. a global leader in this effort?

Follow-up: Do you see a role for private-public partnerships in bringing low-carbon energy sources to market? Which federal agencies and what policy initiatives would be key in such an effort?

Question 3

Context: Many who remain in agencies like the CDC, EPA, NOAA, USGS, and NIH feel that the integrity of their science is being undermined. This is of real concern if the U.S. seeks to maintain international scientific leadership – and to attract the best and brightest students.

Question: A large number of highly specialized scientists have left the federal government, taking their knowledge and skills with them. What would you do to bring them back or attract qualified replacements?

Follow-up: Is it a priority for you to bring scientists back to a rejuvenated and welcoming federal research program? How will you do that?

Question 4

Context: Many proposals have argued that rebuilding our economy offers a historic opportunity to make us safer from the ongoing and future risks of climate disruption. These risks are real – they are already significantly affecting our homes, our lives, our livelihoods, and our health.

Question: We are now rebuilding the United States economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is this an opportunity to make our infrastructure and society less vulnerable to climate change?

Follow-up: Can action to reduce climate change risks help make the United States more resilient, prosperous, and secure?

Question 5

Context: The COVID-19 vaccines issue presents a concrete example of a potential anti-science bias that would have a significant impact on health and on our healthcare system. Ignoring vaccine science jeopardizes the well-being of all U.S. citizens – not just those who avoid vaccination.

Question: We soon hope to have a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. We know, however, that some, and perhaps even many, may refuse it for themselves and their children; they will encourage others to do the same. How would you respond to them?

Follow-up: Effective anti-COVID measures – like the simple wearing of face masks – have become politically divisive issues in the United States. What would you do to prevent similar political division in deploying an effective coronavirus vaccine?

We hope that this little exercise stimulates some thought and discussion. Ideally, it will provoke prospective moderators, journalists, and the public to think carefully about the value of science in a complex, risky world. Our personal bottom line is to help ensure that science and scientific understanding get proper consideration. Science should inform at least some of the questions posed in the upcoming debates to candidates for U.S. president and vice president. We hope that science will also inform some of the answers.


Sources used in preparing this set of recommendations:

Question 1:
* U.S.’s global reputation hits rock-bottom over Trump’s coronavirus response

Question 2:
* 2020 is our last, best chance to save the planet
* Science under attack: How Trump is sidelining researchers and their work

Question 3:
* Perceived losses of scientific integrity under the Trump administration: A survey of federal scientists

Question 4:
* Key investments can build resilience to pandemics and climate change
* Priorities for the COVID-19 economy

Question 5:
* Understanding opposition to vaccines

—Gary Yohe, Emeritus, Wesleyan University, Conn.; Henry Jacoby, Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.; Ben Santer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif.; and Richard Richels, Electric Power Research Institute, Palo Alto, Calif.

This story originally appeared in Yale Climate Connections. It is republished here as part of Eos’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.