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Presidential debate shows how GOP candidates are struggling to address concerns about climate change

The Republican Party doesn’t seem able to reconcile rising concerns about climate change — especially young people — with the GOP’s older base, which largely rejects climate science as a liberal conspiracy theory

New York
A cyclist rides under a blanket of haze partially obscuring the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on June 8, 2023.MANDEL NGAN (AFP)

The eight Republican presidential candidates on the debate stage were asked to raise their hands if they believed human behavior is causing climate change.

Not a single hand went up.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down the question and attacked the “corporate media.” Echoing the words of former President Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy called climate change “a hoax” and a “wet blanket on our economy.” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., insisted that more serious environmental threats are coming from China, India and Africa.

Just one Republican, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said during Wednesday night’s debate in Milwaukee that climate change “is real.”

A day later, frustrated leaders in the GOP’s small but growing movement of environmental activists said their party must do better. In fact, some young conservatives confronted Ramaswamy at a gathering after the debate and told him his answer was particularly unhelpful.

“We’re getting to a point where Republicans are losing winnable elections because they’re alienating people that care about climate change,” Christopher Barnard, the Republican president of the American Conservation Coalition, the largest conservative environmental group in the nation, said Thursday.

As the 2024 presidential contest begins in earnest, the Republican Party is struggling to reconcile rising concerns about climate change — especially young people — with the GOP’s older base, which largely rejects climate science as a liberal conspiracy theory. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that heat-trapping gases released from the combustion of fossil fuels are pushing up global temperatures, upending weather patterns and endangering animal species.

Some Republican leaders have acknowledged they cannot ignore climate change altogether. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has called for planting 1 trillion trees to help protect the environment. But the solutions long promoted by Democrats and environmental advocates — government action to force emissions reductions — remains a nonstarter with the GOP’s presidential candidates.

“The climate change agenda is a hoax,” Ramaswamy said during the debate, repeating the line for emphasis, even as some younger people in the audience booed. “The reality is more people are dying of climate change policies than they actually are of climate change.”

None of Ramaswamy’s competitors, eager to attack him on other issues during the two-hour debate, challenged him directly on climate, even after the debate moderators highlighted new evidence that climate change is causing major problems.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who was silent on climate change during the debate, suggested on Thursday that it is largely a matter of messaging for the GOP.

“Look the climate is changing, but I believe the issue is what we do about it,” Pence told The Associated Press, condemning Democratic-backed policies such as the so-called Green New Deal. “It’s all just about communicating a different vision.”

Meanwhile, conditions across the country and the world are creating new urgency for the GOP to take climate change seriously.

Heavy rains poured on Cleveland during the debate and Detroit flooded overnight. Wildfires in Canada have led to smoky, polluted air in much of the United States, while a catastrophic wildfire in Hawaii was the deadliest in more than a century. Southern California was hit with a tropical storm for the first time in decades.

But the biggest climate effect has been the heat.

July saw global daily and monthly temperatures hotter than modern equipment had ever recorded. Some scientists said it was the hottest in about 120,000 years, based on tree rings and other proxy records. The world’s oceans have set records for heat, both on the surface and deeper, every month since spring. Florida saw 100-degree water and unprecedented coral bleaching.

The presidential debate “underscored the fact that one of the two parties (the GOP) not only refuses to act on the climate crisis, but refuses to even acknowledge it exists,” University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann said in an email. “It is a disqualifying position on the defining challenge of our time.”

“The party will lose a huge chunk of voters, especially women and younger voters if it adopts this stance,” he said.

Most people in the United States (62%) say the federal government is doing too little to reduce climate change, according to a September 2022 poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Even as U.S. adults don’t think the government is doing enough, there’s a clear division among Republicans.

Half of Republicans under age 45 say the government isn’t addressing climate change enough, compared with just 32% of older Republicans.

Younger Republicans also say they feel anxious when discussing climate change at a higher rate than older Republicans. An AP-NORC poll from April found that 17% of young Republicans said anxious describes how they feel when talking about climate change, compared with 7% of older Republicans.

Among Americans overall, those under 45 are twice as likely as those 45 and older to say they’re anxious when talking about climate change (30% vs. 15%).

Barnard, of the American Conservation Coalition, said it was a win for conservative environmentalists that the climate question was even asked. But he said that his party must do better and he offered advice to the GOP’s presidential class.

“You don’t have to be the biggest climate champion,” Barnard said. “If you just say, ‘Climate change is real, and we’re going to have some sort of solution,’ that’s enough for most voters.”

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