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Even a Republican Debate Has to Cover Climate Change in 2023

A small victory for the planet.

An elephant being asked a question.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

They actually talked about climate change Wednesday night at the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle.

It was a quick conversation — about six minutes total. The non-Donald Trump candidates spent more time sniping at each other (and President Joe Biden) than they did talking about the warming planet. And it was hard to come away from that moment with a belief that anybody on stage had a plan, or even much interest, for addressing the climate.

But they did talk about it.

Better yet, the conversation came early: In the first segment before the commercial break, just 23 minutes into the debate, when the Americans who had tuned in were still actually tuned in. The question came from a younger Republican, naturally, who pointed out that climate change is a big issue for young voters.

What, he asked, could the candidates on stage say to those voters to "calm their fears that Republicans don't care about this?"

Not much as it turned out.

Given a chance to raise their hands if they believed in human-made global warming, none of the eight candidates did so. Instead, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attacked Biden’s response to the deadly Maui wildfire. And anti-woke entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy quickly jumped in to pronounce that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.”

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  • This was just a few moments after Ramaswamy had answered another question by urging America to “burn coal.” So it wasn’t surprising that given another stab at the topic, he doubled down. "The anti-carbon agenda is a wet blanket on our economy," Ramaswamy said. More people are dying from climate policies, he said, than from climate change itself.

    That’s unlikely. Climate change is deadly and only going to get deadlier, particularly for the world’s poorest people. But Ramaswamy left no doubt where he stood.

    Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at least acknowledged the reality of climate change. “Is climate change real? Yes it is,” she acknowledged. But subsidies for green energy from Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, she said, aren’t helping Americans. “All that does is help China,” she said. (That might surprise residents of all those red states benefiting from the law’s investments in their districts.)

    And her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott, vowed to solve the problem by bringing jobs back to the United States. Besides, he said, the United States isn’t the only contributor — just look at Africa, India, and China. “Why would we put ourselves at a disadvantage” to those countries, he asked? (The United States, of course, has far and away been the world’s biggest emitter of carbon.)

    After that, it was time for a commercial.

    It wasn’t much, and it couldn’t have possibly satisfied the fears of all those young voters mentioned in the question. But it was remarkable that the question was given such prominence at all.

    The “drag their heels” caucus has prominent members of both parties, of course. But Republicans and their conservative allies have long been ideologically committed to the notion that climate change isn’t real, or if it’s real it’s not human-made, or if it’s human-made it’s still not worse than giving up all those carbon that has produced so much energy — and thus so much wealth — for this country. That’s pretty much how they governed, too.

    Maybe that’s no longer tenable, or at least not entirely. The lower 48 states are sweltering under a record-setting heat dome. They’re still searching for bodies in the ashes of Maui. Wildfires are sparking evacuations in Washington state. That’s just the stuff that’s happened this week.

    For millions of Americans, climate change is no longer theoretical or some future problem to be dealt with later. They’re living it in their real lives, right this very moment.

    Still, old habits die hard. Just a third of Republicans (and GOP-leaning independents) say that climate change has anything to do with the searing temperatures. And while young voters might be concerned about the climate, GOP voters — the folks who will be voting in the primary elections — have other things at the top of their mind.

    Take the victories where you can find them. The existence of a climate change discussion during Wednesday night’s debate was at least a small concession to reality. Possibly there was no other choice. But still. They talked about climate change at the GOP presidential debate. It’s a start.

    Read more about the Republican primary:

    Where the Republican Candidates Stand on Climate Change

    Joel Mathis profile image

    Joel Mathis

    Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association. Read More

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