During this week’s Republican primary debate on Fox News, a young voter notably asked about the climate crisis: How would these presidential candidates assuage concerns that the Republican Party “doesn’t care” about the issue?
The question was all but unavoidable after weeks of extreme, deadly weather. Global temperature records have been shattered, extreme heat has soared off-the-charts in the US and the Maui wildfire death toll continues to climb.
What followed the question was one of the night’s most chaotic exchanges, demonstrating the challenge some conservatives face in getting climate policy on the 2024 GOP agenda, even as extreme weather takes its toll on millions of people across the country.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the leader of a state that has been thrashed by deadly extreme weather in recent years, refused the moderators’ show-of-hands question on whether climate change is caused by humans. He used the moment to deride the media and President Joe Biden’s response in Maui.
Then 38-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy – notably the youngest candidate on stage – called the “climate change agenda” a “hoax,” an answer that elicited intense boos from the audience.
A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – 55% – say human activity is causing changes to the world’s climate, according to a recent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll. It also found a majority of Americans and Republicans say their area has been impacted by extreme heat in the past five years.
But connecting the dots between climate and extreme weather is proving a more partisan issue. The poll found there are deep divides between Republicans and Democrats on the question of whether human-caused climate change is contributing to extreme weather: just 35% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they think climate change is a major factor in extremely hot days, compared with 85% of those who lean Democrat.
After the debate, a prominent conservative climate group said Ramaswamy tried to clarify his position.
“He came to our after-party and he blatantly told us that he believes climate change is real,” Benji Backer, founder of the American Conservation Coalition, told CNN. “So, he changed his position again.”
Asked by CNN on Friday whether he believes climate change is real, Ramaswamy responded, “Climate change has existed as long as the Earth has existed. Manmade climate change has existed as long as man has existed on the earth.” In an email, Ramaswamy’s campaign spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin told CNN the candidate does believe climate change is real, but policies to address it “have little to do with climate change and more to do with penalizing the West as a way to achieve global ‘equity.’”
Yet for Republicans working to make climate policy more mainstream in the GOP, Ramaswamy’s language at the debate echoed a climate crisis-denying candidate who wasn’t onstage, former President Donald Trump. Trump has called climate change itself a “hoax” and falsely claimed wind turbines cause cancer.
“The fact that he chose the word hoax, to me, he’s emulating what President Trump had said before,” Heather Reams, president of conservative nonprofit Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, told CNN. Reams, who was sitting in the audience in Milwaukee, noted that Ramaswamy calling the “climate change agenda” a hoax didn’t go over well in a room full of Republicans.
“The whole place booed him, so it wasn’t well received,” Reams said. “Hearing booing was actually heartening to hear that the party is really moving on, they’re seeing the economic opportunities that can be had for the United States being a leader in lowering emissions.”
Ramaswamy’s response was an attempt to go after the older GOP voting base in the primary, Backer said. It’s the kind of audience that Fox News has historically played to when it hosts climate deniers on some of its shows or casts doubt on the connection between extreme weather and the climate crisis – but Backer said the fact the network even asked this question “just shows that the pendulum is shifting.”
Backer warned Ramasway’s response to the question risks alienating younger conservative voters who are increasingly concerned about climate impacts.
“I’ve in two presidential elections and I’ve never voted for a Republican president in my life, because I don’t vote for climate deniers,” Backer said, adding that climate denial “is the way of the past.”
Several Republican presidential candidates have said they believe climate change is real and caused by human activity – a shift from previous elections.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley acknowledged its reality but said foreign nations, including India and China, bear larger responsibility for addressing it. Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum have all engaged frequently with conservative groups, Reams and Backer said.
“I think that Nikki Haley provided a very clear, very positive response,” Danielle Butcher Franz, CEO of the American Conservation Coalition, told CNN. “We need to see more responses like that in the Republican Party. I think it’s important that we show the conservative environmental movement is here to stay.”
Backer warned that Ramaswamy and other candidates risk losing young voters if they continue to engage in climate denial – or anything that sounds remotely like it.
“There’s a lot of Republicans leading on this, but the narrative is that we don’t care,” Backer said. “And if we nominate another person who doesn’t care, young people are not going to forget that. There’s not going to be a lot of baby boomers in 20 years, so you better start thinking about the next generation.”
CNN’s Aaron Pellish contributed to this report.