The world is burning from a record heat wave. GOP presidential candidates are shrugging
The nation is baking in a record heat wave that is serving as a reminder of how climate change is rapidly affecting human life — from endangering outdoor workers to raising existential questions about communities at sea level.
Yet when it comes to the GOP presidential field, climate change is mostly shrugged off.
None of the 11 major candidates for president is offering significant warnings about the issue.
Most have acknowledged the existence of human-caused climate change, and some have taken action to combat it while holding lower offices.
But most of the candidates are putting more of an emphasis on drilling for oil and natural gas than on taking steps to control emissions.
None of them has a dedicated climate change subsection on the issues page of their campaign website — although biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s economic plan includes the bullet point “abandon the climate cult and unshackle nuclear energy” — and none of the candidates with a dedicated page for energy policy advocates scaling back fossil fuel development.
Playing down the threat
Former President Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, stands out from the rest of the Republican field on the issue for his active minimization of the threat of climate change.
Trump, who withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accords under which countries promised to lower emissions, has in the past acknowledged humans have played some role in changing the climate. However, he has repeatedly played down the dangers, including by misrepresenting the threat of rising sea levels and claiming without any scientific basis that climate change will reverse itself.
Trump has vowed to aggressively expand domestic fossil fuel production and “ensure the United States is never again at the mercy of a foreign supplier of energy.”
His campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
In addition to withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement — which President Biden reentered in 2021 — Trump also staffed his former administration with climate change skeptics, including former Environmental Protection Agency Administrators Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, and unwound more than 100 existing environmental regulations while in office.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is behind Trump in the polls but widely seen as the second-leading candidate in the GOP field, has also minimized climate change as an issue.
He governs a state that is on the front lines of climate change. Miami this week suffered from a historically high heat index, and it and other seaside communities face an existential threat if seas continue to rise because of climate change.
As governor, DeSantis has taken some action to build resilience to rising sea levels in the state, creating the position of chief resilience officer and allocating hundreds of millions of dollars for flood adaptation efforts, but he has been dismissive of efforts to actively cut greenhouse gas emissions.
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In 2021, the governor, speaking in Pinellas County, claimed climate change is frequently invoked to advance liberal priorities, saying “we’re not going to do any left-wing stuff.”
Like DeSantis, Ramaswamy has stopped short of denying climate change but has largely discussed it in the language of the culture war rather than that of economics or policy.
Ramaswamy, who has polled in the mid-single digits in the primary, largely built his national profile on opposition to environmental and sustainable governance (ESG), the practice of weighing environmental and climate issues, among others, in investment and financial decisions that has attracted increasing opposition from Republicans, including DeSantis.
Ramaswamy has called fossil fuels “a requirement for human prosperity” but has also been a proponent of nuclear energy, which some consider a potentially valuable renewable energy source while others raise safety concerns about its storage.
Asked if the candidate considers climate change a threat that requires intervention by the federal government, a spokesperson for the Ramaswamy campaign told The Hill in an email that he believes “there’s a reason why climate activists are the biggest opponents of nuclear and hydroelectric energy, and why they restrict fossil fuel production in the US while shifting it to places like Russia & China: their agenda has nothing to do with ‘climate’ & everything to do with global ‘equity.’”
Passing the buck to private enterprise
Several of the GOP candidates, including DeSantis, have indicated that they believe efforts to combat climate change should be the purview of private industry rather than the government.
The Florida governor’s campaign referred The Hill to comments he made in an interview with Fox News’s Stu Varney, in which DeSantis, asked directly whether he had a climate plan, said: “In Florida, we’ve actually had a huge reduction in emissions, but it was done through innovation. It was done through market forces, not command and control. So we’ll go about that in a much different direction than Joe Biden.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a long shot for the Republican nomination, has made little reference to climate change on the campaign trail, but as governor made comments pointing to a similar belief. “Our power companies have voluntarily embraced sources of alternative energy without heavy-handed regulation from government,” he told Reuters in 2020. “Which indicates to me that they are following the markets. We prefer a market-driven response to government mandates.”
Similarly, Ken Farnaso, a spokesman for former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley’s campaign, told The Hill in an email she “believes that when it comes to climate change, capitalism and economic freedom aren’t the problem—they’re the solution.”
Haley, who has garnered mid-single-digit support in polling, has backed carbon-capture technology, which sucks carbon dioxide from the air, calling it an example of “innovative ideas that actually work” in contrast to policies pursued by the Democratic Party.
She has also pledged to roll back Biden administration energy subsidies and environmental regulations and promote domestic oil and gas production if she is elected.
“As president, she will pursue an all-of-the-above energy policy that lowers costs for Americans,” Farnaso said.
A mixed history of climate stances
As U.N. ambassador during the Trump administration, Haley played a key role in the former president’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, which she touts on her campaign website. The move was also enthusiastically backed by former Vice President Mike Pence and by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who was one of its most fervent supporters in the Senate — even as both have for years acknowledged humanity’s part in changing the climate.
Scott’s campaign did not immediately respond when asked whether he would withdraw from the agreement again if elected, but both Haley’s and Pence’s campaigns confirmed to The Hill that they would, as did Ramaswamy’s.
Pence, who is polling in third place in the primary behind Trump and DeSantis according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, acknowledged the human role in climate change as early as 2016. In a June CNN town hall, during a period where much of the East Coast was blanketed in haze from Canadian wildfires, Pence said “clearly the climate is changing,” but not “as dramatically as the radical environmentalists like to present.”
But in addition to backing Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, he has also been a proponent of increased oil and gas development, like most of the GOP candidates. A Pence adviser said the former vice president has not released a formal climate policy, but referred The Hill to policy proposals from his communications firm Advancing American Freedom, which call for an end to federal subsidies for “any energy source” as well as expansions of oil and gas exploration and increased exports of liquefied natural gas.
Scott, who has also been polling in the low single digits, told the Charleston Post & Courier in 2017 that “there is no doubt” humanity has contributed to climate change, adding that he is “not living under a rock.” But along with supporting withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, Scott joined every other Republican in the Senate last year in voting against the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate bill in the country’s history.
He has also touted support for further extraction of fossil fuels in the U.S. on the campaign trail, saying in Iowa that “making sure we have the strongest excavation of our natural resources is absolutely essential to the future of our nation.” At the same appearance, he also highlighted his support for biofuels.
A spokesperson for the Scott campaign referred The Hill to Scott’s record of supporting some policies that would promote renewables in the Senate, including his backing for the nuclear production tax credit, his support for energy permitting reform plans introduced by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and his co-sponsorship of the RISEE Act, which would distribute offshore wind revenues to states.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another candidate polling in the low-single digits, also has a mixed record on the issue. He has acknowledged the existence of human-caused climate change since 2011, a period when many of his fellow Republicans outright denied its existence. However, as governor he also withdrew the Garden State from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a carbon emissions trading program involving several northeastern states that aims to cap regional carbon emissions through the issuance of tradeable carbon allowances. New Jersey rejoined RGGI in 2018 under Christie’s successor, current Gov. Phil Murphy (D).
Christie, whose 2024 campaign has largely hinged on his willingness to criticize Trump, has made little mention of climate on the campaign trail.
Taking a stronger stand
Some of the long-shot candidates in the race have taken more moderate — or even relatively hawkish — stances on the issue than their opponents who are garnering more support.
In June, for instance, former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) went further than many of his fellow candidates toward acknowledging climate change as a significant threat. Addressing the wildfire smoke that is spreading across much of the U.S., he tweeted that “reducing both the frequency of destructive wildfires and the billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions they generate is a must to address Climate Change.”
“When more people think Climate Change is impacting them personally, then we will see the focus required to fix it while staying energy independent,” he added.
Hurd’s record on the issue while in office was far from aggressive, however. While he was considered a moderate member of his caucus during his six years in the House, he received a lifetime score of only 13 percent from the League of Conservation Voters for his voting record on what experts deemed important pieces of environmental legislation.
Two other long-shot candidates, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, are the only contenders with a record of actively seeking to cut emissions. Both are currently polling close to 0 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.
Suarez has perhaps the most aggressive record in office on climate change of any GOP candidate, setting a goal in 2020 to make the city emission-neutral by 2050. The details of his plan include converting the city’s electricity supply entirely to renewables by 2035.
Burgum, meanwhile, has set a goal to make his state carbon-neutral by the end of the decade. North Dakota relies heavily on fossil fuel industry jobs, as the third-leading state for crude oil production, and Burgum has also heavily touted carbon-capture technology rather than phasing out the use of fossil fuels as a way to achieve carbon neutrality.
In an email to The Hill, Suarez said he believes the party can make space for sensible climate action without accepting the Democratic Party’s framing of the issue.
“I think my party would be wise to acknowledge that we all need to respect our environment. That our goal should be to leave a world to our children that is better than the one our parents handed us. But that doesn’t mean we have to buy into the Al Gore ‘we are all going to die’ extremism,” he said. “We should practice the three climate R’s. Be Responsible, Be Reasonable and be Rational … and understand that the environment IS the economy, it’s not one or the other.”
In both agenda and rhetoric, the Republican field is in sharp contrast with Biden on climate. Biden, the far-and-away front-runner to once again claim the Democratic nomination, has called climate change “the only truly existential threat” to humanity. While he has taken several steps that have drawn criticism from climate advocates in recent months, most notable among them his approval of a major oil drilling project in Alaska, Biden has staked out an aggressive stance on the issue as president, including by championing the Inflation Reduction Act, rejoining the Paris Agreement and imposing a pause on new oil leasing on federal lands that has since been struck down by the courts. He has touted his climate-related accomplishments and goals on the 2024 campaign trail and garnered endorsements from several major environmental organizations in his reelection bid.
On the Republican side, meanwhile, even the candidates who have acknowledged human-caused climate change as a threat or worked to fight it in the past have so far made little mention of it on the campaign trail.
At this stage in the race, there’s little political incentive for Republicans to discuss climate change, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist based in Florida, even if they may have an environmental record to draw on like DeSantis.
“What you do not see from the Republicans is sort of what Republican [voters] see as a green energy assault on the economy,” O’Connell told The Hill. “You have to balance the environment with the world’s leading economy.”
“I don’t think, necessarily, that the Republicans do the best job of making that point to the voters,” particularly those under 35, he added, and those younger voters will be a far larger problem in a general election.
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