For the first time, a climate journalist will moderate a presidential debate

The World
Democratic 2020 US presidential candidates (left to right) former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders participate in the eighth Democratic 2020 presidential debate.

For the first time, the environment rivals the economy as the top voter issue in the US, according to new data from the Pew Research Center. Even so, environmental concerns are not racking up many minutes in the Democratic presidential debates. 

The topic arose once at a debate in December when it was raised by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is also a presidential hopeful.  

“I do believe this is the existential issue,” Sanders said of climate change before being interrupted by a moderator asking him to answer the question about race. 

“People of color, in fact, are going to be the people suffering most if we do not deal with climate change,” he continued. 

The Feb. 19 presidential debate in Las Vegas may be different for the first time. Telemundo climate correspondent Vanessa Hauc will be one of five moderators — it’s the first time a climate journalist will moderate a presidential debate. Hauc leads the network’s environmental investigative unit and has been on that beat for more than two decades. She spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about climate coverage by the mainstream media and the relationship between Latino communities and climate change.

Related: Every 30 seconds, a young Latino in the US turns 18. Their votes count more than ever.

Marco Werman: Vanessa, why do you think you were chosen as one of the debate’s moderators? 

Vanessa Hauc: People in the United States and all over our planet are realizing that climate change is one of the most important issues of our times. So, this is a great opportunity to really raise this issue and raise important questions to the candidates to see what are the plans, what are the proposals, how are they planning to face this existential crisis that we’re facing. 

Maybe it was not seen as a very important issue three or four years ago. But this election, it’s clear climate change is going to be a key and a decisive issue for many voters. 

Yeah, I mean, it is a shift from even 2016 where I think the environment was like five or six down on the list of concerns. What do you think that shift signals? 

I think that people are facing this reality on a very close and personal level. We have seen the fires in Australia. We have seen the fires in the Amazon jungle. We see the droughts and the flooding. It’s really coming home to people. They are realizing that it’s not a distant phenomenon that is going to affect the next generation. This is something that is very real that is happening today, and that we need to address it and do something about it. 

As a Telemundo correspondent, your audience is mostly Latino. We heard Sen. Sanders a moment ago making the point that people of color are going to be especially impacted by climate change. Do you think he has a point, and how does it affect your coverage? 

Absolutely. That is the case. Climate change affects all our planet, but it does not affect everyone equally. African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately more affected by climate change. Latino children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than children from any other ethnic group. Half of our community lives in the 25 most polluted cities in the country, and it’s the same for African Americans. And when there is a storm, or whether it is a drought, whether it is a flood, many of the people in our community don’t have the possibility to go to a doctor or to move to a different place. Definitely, in the United States, and all of our planet, the people that have the least are the ones that are going to be more affected — and unfortunately, the people that contribute to the problem the least. 

Vanessa, obviously, you’re a journalist. You also created this project, Sachamama, which is a nonprofit that advocates for sustainability within the Latino community. How do you balance your advocacy work with objectivity while you’re reporting on climate? 

Sachamama is a nonprofit organization that I have been working on for the past eight years because I saw that there was a huge need for this information for the Latino community in a way that it really resonates. But really, I think it doesn’t have anything to do with objectivity. It is actually my responsibility as a journalist to cover the issues that are impacting my community, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. 

So, let me ask that slightly differently. Is it hard for you as a journalist, especially one with kids, to stay objective and calm about a subject in which, as you rightly noted, part of the narrative involves the planet burning and seas rising in real time? 

It’s very difficult, you know. I mean — humans of course, are humans, and we feel pain and we feel stress. And some of this coverage that I have done for Telemundo is very, very difficult. We went to the Amazon jungle to cover the devastation left by the fires for weeks and weeks. 

More than 2 million acres were burned to the ground. And I’m from Peru, I was born in Peru. So for me, the Amazon jungle has a very special place in my heart. To see people displaced, to see the animal deaths, is absolutely heartbreaking. 

But at the same time, I have a son and there’s nothing I want more than for him to have a healthy life, to be able to grow up in a beautiful planet that is healthy, that gives him all the opportunities to be happy and to do the best of his life. And that is exactly what every parent wants. I’m positive. This coverage that I have been doing for many years about environmental issues gives me the fuel to continue educating myself, raising the tough questions to the polluters to really ask for accountability for the people responsible for this destruction. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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