How will energy, climate change and EVs feature in the first Republican debate?


Republican presidential candidates taking the debate stage Wednesday night have questioned the severity of climate change, with at least one White House contender calling global warming a “hoax” in a summer that saw wildfire smoke and extreme heat stifle large swaths of the country.

Other GOP candidates among the eight tapped for the party’s first primary debate hail from states that promote greener but perennially subsidized biofuels as alternatives to gasoline, itself also boosted by government incentives. These candidates are pushing for a diverse portfolio of domestically produced energy, including sticking with natural gas
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while embracing the migration to climate-friendlier, but still growing, sources like wind, solar
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and nuclear to power U.S. electricity.

Read: Here are the Republicans running for president, as their first debate looms

Most of the party’s candidates and their congressional brethren have made it clear that if Republicans take back the White House, or perhaps more importantly, secure a congressional majority in 2024, President Joe Biden’s climate-focused federal spending bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, could be stripped to a shell of its former self. They’ve made this pledge even though the bulk of the $360 billion in federal spending outlined for renewable energy, electric-vehicle promotion and more, is largely filtering into states that are Republican strongholds.

Related: Climate winners and losers as the Inflation Reduction Act hits 1-year anniversary

DeSantis says no

One exception when it comes to IRA money, Florida governor and GOP presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, rejected $377 million in clean-energy funding for Florida from Biden’s IRA and the separate bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

DeSantis in recent polls runs a distant second behind 2024 frontrunner, former President Donald Trump. Trump himself has called climate change “bullshit” and has cast doubt on climate science since at least 2010, claiming the “science doesn’t know” about climate change. Trump is not a participant in Wednesday’s organized debate but has indicated he’ll hold his own events during primary season.

Read: Climate change happening faster than globe can adapt, latest U.N. report warns

In addition to DeSantis, the Republican National Committee has named Wednesday’s participants as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former Trump official and onetime New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, as well as former ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Read more: Non-Trump Republican presidential candidates to try for ‘breakout moment’ in this week’s debate

And see: Republican presidential debate: What time it starts, how to watch and more

DeSantis has shown his preference for traditional fossil-fuel energy
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in other ways. He vetoed a state bill earlier this summer that would have increased the number of government electric vehicles on Florida’s roads. The rejection, according to Florida media, marked a reversal from the governor’s earlier remarks largely favoring the state EV program. The bill, SB284, was sponsored by a Republican and approved by almost all of the Republicans in the state assembly, who largely touted its estimated savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars for taxpayers.

Burgum, a candidate with perhaps the smallest national profile, has shown a grasp of energy and renewables complexities when speaking to his local media outlets.

“The first thing we have to do is make sure that Western Europe and our allies in the Pacific are actually getting energy from [the U.S.] and not from our adversaries,” Burgum told the Sioux City Journal. He then pointed to German manufacturing challenges as indictive of an overreliance on Russian energy and that such woes can raise the price of goods in America. 

Burgum, who has pushed for North Dakota to become carbon neutral by 2030 and touted the state’s $42 billion oil and gas industry, said that as president, he would back an all-of-the-above energy approach that includes alternative and traditional fuels. 

Low-priority ‘hoax’

Others in the pack are playing to historical Republican sentiments that question climate-change science overall.

Ramaswamy, a former pharmaceutical exec, has indicated that climate and clean energy won’t even make his list of priorities should he win, calling climate change a “hoax” not backed by data. 

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And Pence once said simply, “I don’t know” when asked directly about whether humans are causing climate change.

Scott, meanwhile, has acknowledged climate change’s impact, once telling The Post and Courier, his home-state newspaper: “There is no doubt that man is having an impact on our environment. There is no doubt about that. I am not living under a rock.” But he has said issues like border security must take precedence over climate policy.

Haley also acknowledges man-made climate change, but takes issue with what she says is unwarranted government spending to address the challenge.

It’s a similar stance for Hutchinson, who wants to kill government mandates when it comes to combating climate change and free up the efforts of the private sector to deliver renewable energy and technological solutions.

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Christie, notably, was early compared to most Republicans in bumping up climate-change concerns in his list of priorities. “When you have over 90% of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role, it’s time to defer to the experts,” he said in 2011.

Read: Republican debate: Why you may hear big numbers like 19% inflation, and how to make sense of it all

The candidates might heed shifting sentiments among some, especially younger, Republican and swing-state voters. Ignoring climate change in the debates could prove a mistake.

By one measure, three out of four Americans (74%) say they do not trust Republicans to address climate change, according to a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll from this summer.

A separate survey by climate advocacy and progressive issues groups, a poll timed to this summer’s heat, found that 81% of Democrats, 62% of independents and 51% of Republicans say the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events are kitchen-table issues in their households.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of Republicans under age 30 (67%) say they prioritize the development of alternative energy sources over expansion of oil and gas production.

Center-right energy policy group Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES) told MarketWatch that its own polling shows Republican voters overwhelmingly support an all-of-the-above energy approach to strengthen American energy security and address climate change. CRES and its stakeholders have historically promoted domestic natural gas production and largely private-sector investment in solar, wind and other renewables to create a diverse U.S. energy portfolio. This diversity, the group believes, strengthens the U.S. economy, but also U.S. security, because it creates less reliance on the whims of global energy markets and less-than-friendly heads of state.

“When appealing to voters, especially young Republicans, it is critical 2024 GOP candidates elevate common sense solutions for more affordable, reliable and clean energy,” said CRES President Heather Reams, who stressed her embrace of GOP candidates’ support for carbon capture, advanced nuclear and other clean-energy technologies. Carbon capture includes approaches that can grab Earth-warming carbon dioxide and other emissions at the point of fossil-fuel combustion before they reach the atmosphere, and another, direct-capture, solution that sucks existing CO2 from the sky.

“I  look forward to hearing the ideas the candidates bring to the table at the first Republican presidential debate,” she added.

Related: Climate change and carbon capture: Texas, Louisiana score federal money for largest-ever U.S. direct-air effort

Beyond the debate: Project 2025

Regardless of the makeup of the field of GOP candidates, powerful conservative groups have drawn up a plan for dismantling the federal government’s efforts to counter climate change.

Called Project 2025, the 920-page blueprint, whose hundreds of authors include former Trump administration officials, would go far beyond past GOP efforts to slash environmental agencies’ budgets or oust “deep state” employees. It calls for, for instance, blocking the expansion of the electrical grid to only use wind and solar energy; slashing funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice office; shuttering the Energy Department’s renewable energy offices; preventing other states from adopting California’s auto-pollution standards; and delegating more regulation of polluting industries to state officials.

“Project 2025 is not a white paper. We are not tinkering at the edges. We are writing a battle plan, and we are marshaling our forces,” Paul Dans, director of Project 2025 at the Heritage Foundation, told Politico. “Never before has the whole conservative movement banded together to systematically prepare to take power day one and deconstruct the administrative state.”

And as Politico noted, the plan to gut the Department of Energy was written by Bernard McNamee, a former DOE official whom Trump appointed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. McNamee, who did not have regulatory experience, was one of the most overtly political FERC appointees in decades, his critics said. He was a director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that fights climate regulations, and was a senior adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican.

The overhaul would move federal agencies away from public health protections and environmental regulations and return more decision-making to industries when it comes to clean-energy migration and pollution. And, of course, a Republican president could nullify Biden’s climate executive orders.

Clues to the feelings of Republican leaders emerged in the early days after the 2022 midterms, when the party threw down the gauntlet with a fight over energy and climate change right out of the gate with H.R. 1., a largely symbolic, pro-fossil fuel energy bill. They also proposed in their debt ceiling bill to roll back the clean energy components of the IRA.

Strategists for Democratic candidates also hope climate change, EVs
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and the broader makeup of U.S. energy policy make it into the debates. That’s because most Democrats think they can make inroads with younger voters, urban and suburban voters and, possibly, swing-state voters with the topic.

“Majorities of voters across the political spectrum — including Republicans — believe that climate change is a major problem and have an unfavorable view of lawmakers who deny that it is a threat,” Democratic strategists with Global Strategy Group Andrew Baumann and Melissa Bell wrote in a column for The Hill.

“Since the IRA became law, clean-energy companies have already announced new projects that will create more than 142,000 clean-energy jobs, helping reinforce the argument that the clean energy transition will boost the economy, something voters already believe,” they said.

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