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Politics

What You Didn’t Hear at the Second GOP Debate

Despite appearing in a building damaged by a brush fire, the candidates weren’t asked a single question about climate change.

Republican debate participants.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The second Republican presidential debate was defined more by what it lacked than by what it had. Undoubtedly the biggest absence was former President Donald Trump, who skipped the debate entirely and campaigned in Michigan instead. (Despite media reports that he would address the striking United Autoworkers, he spoke at a non-union auto-parts company, where he trashed electric vehicles at length.)

The second biggest absence was any question about climate change. Although moderators at the first Republican presidential debate asked about climate change within the first 20 minutes, this debate all but pretended it didn’t exist.

When Vivek Ramaswamy said that he joined TikTok in order to reach young people and win the election, Danielle Butcher Franz, the conservative CEO of the American Conservation Coalition, tweeted: “If Vivek wants to reach young Americans, he doesn't need to make TikToks with cringe influencers. He could simply address the issues they care about. Climate is a good place to start.”

It was only towards the end of the debate that the moderators even addressed a climate change-adjacent topic that Republicans of all stripes should be very comfortable asking: How are you going to ramp up oil drilling even, as Stuart Varney said, you would run into opposition from the courts?

Vivek Ramaswamy, who in the last debate said the “climate change agenda is a hoax,” instead launched into a familiar litany of his grab bag of economic policy ideas: He would “run through” the courts and the administrative state; he would end the scourge of “using taxpayer money to pay more people to stay at home than to go work,”; scrap regulations; and reform the Federal Reserve to give it a mandate of maintaining the value of the dollar.

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  • Pence counterposed the achievements of the Trump administration — namely an energy export boom — against the “war on energy” that he accused the Biden administration of waging (tell it to the climate activists outraged at the administration’s approval of the Alaskan Willow drilling project). “We’re going to open up federal lands, we’re going to unleash American energy, we’re going to have an all-of-the-above-energy strategy,” Pence said.

    Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis proceeded to fight over DeSantis’ energy record in Florida.

    There were two odd things about this whole portion of the debate.

    The first was that it was a discussion of energy policy with no mention of climate change. The debate was being held at the Reagan Library in the scrubby hills of Simi Valley in Ventura County. In 2019, the library suffered half a million dollars worth of damage thanks to a brush fire. The next Republican debate will be held in Miami, Florida, perhaps the major city most exposed to sea level rise. Fires, floods, energy policy, and no climate change?

    Even Donald Trump, in his hour-plus rant against electric cars and the Biden White House, at least had an explanation for why Democrats in power implemented environmental and energy policies he disagrees with. He even tried to argue that actually he’s better on the environment because of his opposition to electric car subsidies and attendant rare earth mining and, of course, the threat wind turbines pose to birds (and whales).

    For the Republicans debating each other on stage, it was just a hurried recital of talking points that have been barely updated since the days of “drill, baby, drill.”

    And none of the major candidates seemed particularly comfortable with the details of energy policy. Doug Burgum, governor of the state that’s sixth in the nation in total energy production and third in oil production, had to insist on his right to talk about oil production “as the only person leading an energy state,” but the moderator redirected the question to Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, a state that ranks 26th in energy production and has no hydrocarbon industry to speak of.

    This stands in contrast to past Republican contests, which have featured candidates like George W. Bush, who worked in the oil industry, or John McCain, who supported cap-and-trade, or Bush’s successor in serving as governor of America’s major energy producer, Rick Perry.

    Now, it appears, climate change is at best an afterthought in Republican politics, while energy policy is either an issue of sleepy consensus within the party or an adjunct to the culture war against the Democratic Party.

    Read more about the debate:

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    Matthew Zeitlin profile image

    Matthew Zeitlin

    Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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