Republicans in Trouble on Climate Change

About 20 minutes into Wednesday’s Republican presidential nominee debate, the Fox News anchors turned things over to a college student with a pertinent question. “Polls consistently show that young people’s No. 1 issue is climate change,” said Alexander Diaz, chair of Young Americans for Freedom at the Catholic University of America. “How will you, as both president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party, calm their fears that the Republican Party doesn’t care about climate change?”

It was, honestly, a remarkable moment. Fox News itself has been no slouch in the decades-spanning right-wing mission to downplay the effects of climate change, disputing the near-universal global agreement that human overdependence on fossil fuels is to blame. Yet, just before Diaz’s question, moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum pointed to the historic weather disasters unfolding across the country—Maui’s wildfiresTropical Storm Hilary, the Florida coast’s “hot tub” ocean temperatures, the record-breaking Southwestern heat wavesand noted their links to human impacts. They even closed out Diaz’s question with one of the most pointed gestures of the night: asking each candidate to raise their hand to demonstrate their belief that the climate was indeed changing thanks to human action.

Granted, the bar is so, so low. In the 2012 cycle, there were more questions asked about the moon than about the Earth. In 2016, voters concerned about our climate’s future had to watch Hillary Clinton declare that she believed in science as a laugh line, since the concept of a (denialist) President Donald Trump was still perceived as a joke. Last cycle, climate change did come up, albeit mostly in the Democratic primaries, not in Trump-devoted Republican circles. But over the past decade, the climate around climate change has, well, changed considerably: Following youth trends more broadly, Gen Z and millennial Republicans have consistently stated that they want their party to take firm action on the problem. As John Della Volpe, polling director at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, noted in a pre-debate newsletter: “Protecting access to clean air and water … is about as important to younger Republicans as preserving traditional values is for older ones.”

Diaz himself is evidence of this new type of young Republican: He interned this summer for Arizona Rep. Juan Ciscomani, a freshman Republican who, in a bipartisan talk held in Tucson this week, touted the opportunity to make his state a “climate tech hub” while mentioning his congressional work to protect public lands and fund the cleanup of “forever chemicals” from Arizonan water supplies. Far from sufficient, but better than many Republicans these days.

 

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Anyway, how did the candidates respond to the should-be layup of “raise your hand if you agree humans are changing the climate”? Not well, obviously, as this is the party whose base is still in thrall to Donald Trump—who gutted environmental regulations during his administration and has declared his intent to further that project should he win in 2024, likely in part by complaining about water-efficient showerheads.

A request for a quick gesture devolved into a melee of incoherent braying. Ron DeSantis interrupted the hand-raising exercise to say they should get to debate the issue instead. Then he went off on a misleading rant about President Joe Biden’s Maui response that moderators agreed was not an answer to the question at hand. Everything got worse when Vivek Ramaswamy jumped in with this absolute humdinger: “I’m the only person on this stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this: The climate change agenda is a hoax.” Wildly enough, the in-house viewers booed Ramaswamy for this; the polling firm Navigator found that his approval among independent women voters dropped sharply as Ramaswamy continued ranting about the “anti-carbon agenda” and attributed human casualties to “bad climate change policies.” This also fueled a heated personal squabble with Chris Christie, in an early manifestation of the candidates’ deep contempt for this fast-talking newcomer—who, tauntingly, brought up the Christie-Obama “hug” that followed Superstorm Sandy.

Then Nikki Haley responded, in … a relatively thoughtful manner? “We do care about clean air, clean water—we want to see that taken care of,” she declared. “Is climate change real? Yes, it is. But if you wanna go and really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.” Whatever you make of that line, it is maybe the most reasonable thing any Republican debater said about the issue—again, the bar is so, so low—and it earned a bit of applause.

Haley took a similar tack on abortion, dismissing the push for a federal ban (an incredibly unpopular policy helmed only by incredibly unpopular people, like Mike Pence) and holding forth on the need to protect vulnerable women instead of just, like, jailing them. Both subjects require GOP contenders, in the hopes of “appeasing the base,” to take extremist positions (being anti-abortion, denying human-caused climate change) that are wildly at odds with what the clear majority of American people actually want (access to abortion, action on climate change). Thanks to a detested former president and an outright-loathed Supreme Court, the GOP has backed itself into self-defeating stances both topics. The other candidates’ waffling only underscored this, as did post-debate polling demonstrating that even though Haley was favored by independents, Ramaswamy charmed the Trump-era base.

Overall, it wasn’t a great night for anyone who desires a more reality-oriented GOP. Ramaswamy hammered his oft-repeated “Drill, frack, burn coal” line, earning some cheers; Doug Burgum, known for embracing a bit of action to reduce emissions as North Dakota governor, nevertheless echoed Haley’s critiques of Biden’s climate policies for allegedly “subsidizing China,” conveniently forgetting the domestic battery factory coming to his state thanks to funds from the president’s infrastructure bill. “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,” he blustered. (Buddy, I’m sure that one sounded a lot better in your head.)

Once again, the Republican Party is on track to dismiss the existential concerns of young voters—even as they grow into an ever-important voting bloc. If this didn’t help the GOP in the past few election cycles, it’s probably not going to help them in the next one, either. At any rate, it’s going to be an interesting several months!

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