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The 4 Notable Climate Moments from the First Republican Debate

Climate change was a major topic.

Republican presidential candidates.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If we learned anything new from the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, it was not what anyone planned to do about climate change. The candidates failed to expand on their already scant or nonexistent platforms. Almost all of them failed to acknowledge that climate change was caused by humans.

But what was notable was the fact that the issue has finally earned a more prominent spot on the debate stage. Four years ago, activists railed against Democratic primary debate moderators for not asking any questions about climate change until the second hour of the program. The Fox News hosts got to the issue in about 20 minutes.

Below we’ve recapped what happened next, and the other most remarkable moments of the night for global warming, decarbonization, and energy.

Doug Burgum Comes Out Swinging Against Biden’s Climate Law

Republican debate.

Getty Images/Heatmap Illustration

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, making his first comments in the debate, used a prompt to discuss the economy as a chance to rail against President Biden's historic climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act.

“The economy, energy, and national security are all tied together. We’ve got a plan, the $1.2 trillion of Green New Deal spending in the ‘Inflation Creation Act,’ that’s subsidizing China,” Burgum said. His primarily claim: That IRA subsidies will benefit Chinese battery and renewable manufacturers.

“If we’re going to stop buying oil from the Middle East and start buying batteries from China, we’re going to trade OPEC for Sinopec.”

The IRA, outside of the U.S., has come under fire for its stringent domestic production requirements for electric vehicles and includes domestic content bonuses. Will Kubzansky

The Republican Candidates Are Asked If They Believe Climate Change Is Caused By Humans

Republican debate.

Screenshot courtesy of Fox News

It only took 20 minutes for the Republican debate’s big climate change question to be asked.

Moderator Bret Baier chronicled the summer’s disasters, mentioning missing people in Maui, the rarity of a tropical storm in California, and the overheated ocean in Florida. Then Fox News played a clip from a young conservative.

Alexander Diaz, a student at the Catholic University of America on behalf of the conservative group Young America’s Foundation, noted the importance of climate change to young voters, teeing up Fox News’ Martha MacCallum to ask a simple question: “We want to start on this with a show of hands. Do you believe … human behavior is causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.”

No candidates had raised their hand — although former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson seemed to be inching his hand up — when Ron DeSantis interrupted to say: “We’re not schoolchildren, let’s have the debate.” Will Kubzansky and Emily Pontecorvo

​Vivek Ramaswamy Calls the Climate Change ‘Agenda’ a ‘Hoax’ to Boos

Republican debate.

Getty Images/Heatmap Illustration

Vivek Ramaswamy initially introduced himself to the American people on Wednesday night as a “skinny guy with a funny last name” — but perhaps his name was more aptly made, at least with many young conservatives, by calling “the climate change agenda … a hoax.”

Ramaswamy, a biotech entrepreneur running for his first political office, has previously claimed he’s not a “climate denier,” but also played coy, saying global warming will not be “entirely bad.” It was also not the first time he’s attacked what he calls “the climate cult in America.” In a video shared by his Twitter account this spring, Ramaswamy slammed climate activists for allegedly saying “that you have to abandon carbon emissions at all costs if you live in the United States.” He added, “It’s a cult that says … ‘We’re against nuclear energy’ … because nuclear energy might be too good at solving the alleged clean energy problem, which means they couldn’t use the climate as an excuse to advance a very different agenda.” Nuclear energy has historically been something of a bogeyman for environmentalists, who fear waste and meltdowns, but the nuclear power industry is also receiving billions of dollars from Biden’s two biggest pieces of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Wednesday’s “hoax” comment specifically came in reaction to the Fox News moderators trying to push the candidates into a yes-or-no answer about whether humans are responsible for climate change. Notably, no one immediately raised their hand. An overwhelming consensus of scientists — 99.9% of them, The Guardian found — say climate change is caused by mankind.

Ramaswamy’s answer was clearly an attempt to align his candidacy with former President Trump, who has called climate change "a hoax," “a total hoax,” “an expensive hoax,” and “a total, and very expensive, hoax.” Somewhat surprisingly, Ramaswamy's quip was met by audience boos — as well as interruptions from other candidates, who took issue with him calling himself the “only person on the stage who wasn’t bought and paid for.”

Earlier in the debate, a number of candidates had tip-toed around the possibility of “open[ing] up … energy production,” though Ramaswamy — who’s been said to be gunning to be “Republicans’ next Trump” — was characteristically blunt on that point, as well. “This isn’t that complicated, guys,” the 38-year-old chided his peers. “Unlock American energy. Drill. Frack. Burn coal. Embrace nuclear.” Jeva Lange

Nikki Haley: ‘Is Climate Change Real? Yes, It Is.’

Nikki Haley

Getty Images/Heatmap Illustration

When moderator Martha MacCallum asked the candidates to raise their hand if they believe that human behavior is causing climate change, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took issue with the question.

“We’re not schoolchildren,” DeSantis immediately snapped back before anyone had put a hand in the air. “Let’s have the debate.” But instead of having the debate, he pivoted to bashing President Biden and showing off his extreme weather bonafides. “Biden was on the beach while those people were suffering,” he said, referencing the president’s response to the wildfires in Maui. “As someone who’s handled disasters in Florida, you gotta be activated.”

From there, the moment descended into chaos. Vivek Ramaswamy interrupted to say the “climate change agenda” was a “hoax.” Christie jumped in to toss insults at Ramaswamy.

The only candidate who managed to get a word in about their stance on the issue was Nikki Haley. ”We care about clean air and clean water but there’s a right way to do it,“ she said. “First of all, is climate change real? Yes it is.”

Haley's sole proposal was to push China and India to cut their emissions. She accused Biden of putting money in China’s pocket by subsidizing electric vehicles, and said the subsidies are “not working.” However, car makers have responded to the Inflation Reduction Act’s subsidies by investing millions in domestic manufacturing and domestic supply chains.

At the end, President Biden chimed in on Twitter with the last word. —Emily Pontecorvo

This article was first published at 9:48 PM ET on Wednesday, August 23. It was last updated at 11:44 PM ET.


Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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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. Read More

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Will Kubzansky

Will is an intern at Heatmap from Washington, D.C. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he interned at the Wisconsin State Journal and National Journal. Read More

Read More

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