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The Biggest Climate Story of 2023 Was 2024

I already hate next year!

Donald Trump and President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

I respect that it is still 2023 for three more days and that, as an act of self-love, you’ve permitted yourself not to think about the presidential election until next year, but bear with me for a moment. If you want to understand the biggest climate story of 2023, you’ve got to talk about 2024.

I watched an unhealthy number of Republican debates this year and spent way too much time trying to make sense of the words that came out of Donald Trump’s mouth, and because of this, I can report that a lot of what President Biden’s opposition has been talking about is climate. Some of this is because climate change is simply unignorable at this point: 2023 was the hottest year in over an epoch, and between the fires, floods, heat, and storms, if you weren’t talking about the weather, what were you talking about? (Actually, don’t answer that.)

But some of the climate chatter is also because Republicans are canny. They know that the Inflation Reduction Act is Biden’s signature piece of first-term legislation — and also broadly popular, even if most Americans don’t recognize it by name. And as Biden’s poll numbers have eroded in recent months due to his handling of everything from student loan forgiveness to the situation in Gaza, promoting the IRA is looking increasingly like his best chance to hold the White House. There will be plenty for both parties to tussle over in the coming months — crime, the economy, the very foundations of American democracy, etc. — but 2023 has shown that Republicans will happily use climate as their football.

For one thing, the right is starting to weaponize poorly understood climate buzzwords like “ESG” — or even just “the climate agenda” — the same way they’ve made bogeymen out of terms such as “critical race theory” and “woke.” In practice, that chisels off the actual substance of the climate conversation — the hard work of figuring out what the green transition will continue to look like and how to move forward in a way that does the most good and least harm — from the so-called “climate agenda,” words that conjure an image of a scowling, scruffy hippie who wants to take away your freedom. I mean, just look at how Florida Governor Ron DeSantis nearly squirmed out of his skin when Nikki Haley called him an environmentalist.

But you don’t even have to focus on the smallest, shoutiest Republicans to notice this. Trump is still the frontrunner in the Republican primary, after all — and in many polls, the frontrunner in the presidential election — and he’s been busy disparaging everything from electric vehicles to heat pumps. More alarming is that he’s used the environment to punish his political enemies before, and threats of retribution have characterized his 2024 campaign.

Meanwhile, “groups led by the Heritage Foundation and the America First Policy Institute are already making a ‘battle plan’ to block electricity-grid updates that would allow for solar and wind expansion, to prevent states from adopting California’s car-pollution standards, and to gut clean-power divisions at the Department of Energy, among other things,” The Atlantic recently reported.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the outcome of the 2024 presidential race will determine how fast the world’s second-biggest carbon polluter can change its course and, by grim consequence, the fate of vulnerable communities around the globe. Long gone are the days when the Republican Party pretended climate change wasn’t happening. What’s replaced the head-in-the-sand tactics is far worse (and right out of the Big Oil playbook): a muddying of the waters, a co-opting of the language, a bewildering of the facts.

The last 12 months were just a teaser. Now, the real show begins.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.


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