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Trump, Haley, and the Climate Primary That Wasn’t

Things could’ve been different in South Carolina.

Nikki Haley and Donald Trump.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Library of Congress

As a climate-concerned citizen, one of the most discouraging things about Donald Trump’s all-but-inevitable confirmation as the 2024 Republican presidential nominee has been thinking about parallel universes.

I don’t just mean the ones where the conservative Supreme Court has a shocking change of heart and disqualifies him from the presidential ballot, or where Nikki Haley, against all odds, manages to win her home state primary on Saturday and carry the momentum forward to clinch the Republican nomination. I’m talking about an even greater fantasy: A world in which Trump doesn’t dominate the news cycle, in which South Carolina conservatives have a real debate about the energy transition, and in which the climate conversation hasn’t been set back years by culture war-mongering and MAGAism.

Laugh, sure, but squint and you can almost see it. South Carolina, where the 2024 campaign heads this weekend, is unique among early primary states for having a conservative base that is potentially more open to climate-related issues than people in Iowa or even Nevada. Though the state tracks closely with the opinions of the average American Republican on things like risk perception of global warming and policy support for green issues like regulating CO2 and renewable energy, South Carolina voters have also elected several conservative politicians unusual in their openness toward climate issues. Senator Lindsey Graham, who’s held his office since 2003, has been described as “too green for the GOP,” once even working with then-Senator John Kerry on a climate bill that would have capped greenhouse gas emissions. Even Haley, the state’s former governor, broke with most of the 2024 Republican primary field by saying she believes human activity is causing climate change and worsening extreme weather.

Graham and Haley’s environmental records are far, far from ideal. Still, their unlikely receptiveness to at least some climate science seems to suggest a constituency with a certain level of open-mindedness about green policies. The polls appear to back this up, too: In a summer 2023 study by Conservatives for Clean Energy-South Carolina, more than seven in 10 general election voters in the Palmetto State said they support the continued development of renewable clean energy; the same number said they believe in climate change.

Again, this is only natural when you look at what’s happening in the state. The Inflation Reduction Act is expected to bring an estimated $15 billion in investment in clean energy and storage to South Carolina by 2030, in the form of things like EV battery plants, 73 solar companies, and a lithium processing facility that claims it will produce enough material to support the manufacturing of an estimated 2.4 million EVs per year — that is, 200,000 more than were sold in the U.S. in all of 2023.

South Carolina also stands out in the southeast as being particularly forward-thinking about climate resilience; it’s hard to live in the state and not have extreme weather at the top of your mind. Some 210,000 South Carolinians live in flood-prone areas, the Southern Environmental Law Center reports, and homeowners insurance is increasingly difficult to come by or afford. The state also sits squarely in the path of intensifying Atlantic hurricanes. All of this might seem incongruous with local Republican voters’ middling levels of climate concern, but as writer and professor Susan Crawford told Heatmap last year, “At the state level, certainly, you’re better off not talking about the human causes of climate change” — even as you’re quietly addressing them.

The absence of climate from the primary conversation isn’t just because of the damage that being called an environmentalist does to a Republican’s reputation in the year 2024, though. An early-season primary debate even acknowledged that the climate issue has become so big that Republicans ought to be discussing it. But because Trump is the party’s frontrunner, any conversation about climate, clean-energy jobs, or resilience was over before it could start. While Trump has hardly been shy about attacking EVs and “the green new scam,” his rants are reductive, making climate a negative buzzword rather than a policy issue that can be debated. Haley has spent her time and energy focusing on Trump’s scandals and deflecting his attacks rather than talking about what South Carolinians have to lose if Trump guts the IRA as he intends.

That’s not to say Haley is some great defender of the climate agenda; she isn’t, and needless to say, it’s never good when Rex Tillerson is the one on the right side of an issue from you, as he was when he defended the Paris Agreement against the then-U.N. ambassador’s calls to extract the U.S. from it. But the shame is that Trump has snuffed out any sort of conservative debate about the climate in South Carolina before it could even begin.

Dwelling on the would’ve- and could’ve-beens, of course, is a fool’s errand of which I’m now wholly guilty. This is the reality: Trump is queued up for another win on Saturday, one that will effectively be the nail in the coffin of the Haley campaign even if she’s vowed not to drop out of the race. Voters won’t decide the next four years of the climate agenda in the U.S. tomorrow — that happens 255 days from now, in November. That means the timeline still isn’t fixed, but boy, it sure feels that way.

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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