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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The total absence of energy and climate questions in last night's Democratic debate didn't prevent the topics from surfacing in noteworthy ways onstage and in the surrounding hubbub.

What happened: Some campaigns saw an opening. Bernie Sanders wove climate into several answers and attacked fossil fuel CEOs who "know full well that their product is destroying this world."

  • His campaign tried to make sure people noticed. Policy director Josh Orton tweeted about Sanders' "preemptively" raising it and argued, "Bernie is the climate candidate."

And billionaire activist Tom Steyer was clearly going to say something about climate — a big focus of his work — in the low-polling hopeful's first debate.During a stretch about Russia, Steyer pivoted to call climate "the most important international problem that we're facing."

  • Steyer noted the U.S. can't solve the crisis alone but will have to lead on several fronts. He said the U.S. needs to work with allies and "frenemies." (Checkmate on the youth vote!)

Between the lines: I doubt this was spontaneous. Moments after his comments, Steyer's campaign emailed around his international climate plan released last month.

  • Why it matters: There were scattered references from other candidates, too. Politically, the appeals signal the topic's importance to the primary base.

The backlash: Activists and some journalists bashed debate hosts CNN and the New York Times for asking nothing, given the extraordinary stakes.

  • Washington Post media analyst Erik Wemple said via Twitter: "Tonight's proceedings are sounding like a convincing argument that there really should be a dedicated climate-change debate."
  • This reopens the wounds over the DNC's rejection of calls to sanction a climate-specific debate.
  • The omission was surprising because the NYT is institutionally committed to climate coverage. CNN held a 7-hour candidate town hall on climate on Sept. 4, so maybe that lowered the odds.

Go deeper

Biden speaks with Macron for first time since diplomatic crisis

President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have a conversation ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

President Biden on Wednesday spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron for the first time since a diplomatic row erupted over a scrapped submarine order, per the White House.

Driving the news: Macron said that the French ambassador will return to Washington next week and will resume working with senior U.S. officials.

37 mins ago - World

Scoop: U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran "plan B"

Bennett and Biden. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. and Israel held secret talks on Iran last week to discuss a possible “plan B” if nuclear talks are not resumed, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: This is the first time a top-secret U.S.-Israel strategic working group on Iran has convened since the new Israeli government took office in June.

1 hour ago - World

Scoop: Jake Sullivan plans to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE next week

Sullivan. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan is planning to travel to the Middle East next week, including a stop in Saudi Arabia. He would be the most senior Biden administration official to visit the kingdom.

Why it matters: Sullivan's first trip to the region since taking office is expected to include stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, sources briefed on the plans tell Axios. All three countries are longtime U.S. partners who have faced some early tensions with Biden.