‘Drill, frack, burn coal’: Republicans echo Trump at presidential debate

By Scott Waldman | 08/24/2023 06:24 AM EDT

While the candidates aim to set themselves apart from the front-runner, none are seizing on climate policy or support for renewable energy manufacturing and jobs as a way to stand out.

From left, Republican presidential candidates Asa Hutchinson, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum are seen.

At the first Republican presidential debate, candidates were asked whether they “believed” human behavior was causing climate change. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Former President Donald Trump might not have been at Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, but his energy policy and rejection of climate science took center stage.

Trump’s push for energy dominance cast a long shadow over the eight candidates onstage in Wisconsin, and all promised to essentially follow in his footsteps if they can overcome his massive polling advantage to win the nomination next year.

“This isn’t that complicated guys, unlock American energy, drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear,” technology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said.


The debate showed that, while the candidates aim to differentiate themselves from the front-runner, none are seizing on climate policy or support for renewable energy manufacturing and jobs as a way to stand out.

“We’re going to open up all energy production, we’re going to be energy dominant in this country,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in the first minutes of the debate, echoing a familiar Trump line.

Energy policy is one of theprimary areas of agreement for the Republican candidates. They have all called for a massive increase in domestic oil and gas production and a shift away from President Joe Biden’s aggressive clean energy push. The candidates have universally criticized Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, and some have promised to repeal the climate law or slow its implementation if Congress won’t go along.

Candidates also pushed for a slowdown in clean energy by claiming it only helps China, a regular talking point on Capitol Hill.

“These green subsidies that Biden has put in, all he’s done is help China because he doesn’t understand,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said, adding, “Half of the batteries for electric vehicles are made in China, so that’s not helping the environment, you’re putting money in China’s pocket.”

Wednesday’s debate was hosted by Fox News, which frequently promotes climate disinformation to its large cable audience. Fox hosts have routinely rejected climate science and frequently host on their programs climate deniers who falsely claim that recent heat waves, drought and extreme storms have no connection to human-caused climate change.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy gives an interview after the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
Vivek Ramaswamy, who called climate change a hoax, dominated speaking time at the Republican debate. | Francis Chung/E&E News

One of the first questions asked by moderator Martha MacCallum was if the candidates “believed” human behavior was causing climate change. She asked the candidates to raise their hands if they accepted the science.

DeSantis quickly interrupted before candidates could respond.

“We’re not school children, let’s have the debate,” he said and then redirected the conversation.

Ramaswamy eventually steered back to the question to attack climate science.

“The climate change agenda is a hoax,” said Ramaswamy, putting him in line with past comments by Pence and Trump. The Fox audience booed loudly after his comments.

The debate came during a summer of deadly heat and wildfires fueled by climate change.

On Wednesday, the temperature spiked to at least 100 degrees in Milwaukee, Wis., where the debate was held — a rare benchmark for the northern city. The swing state of Wisconsin narrowly delivered victory to Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, and is a must-win for the 2024 presidential election.

At least two of the eight GOP candidates — Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — acknowledge climate science. But they say that the solution to mitigating greenhouse emissions is to produce more U.S. natural gas.

“If we want the environment to be better, and we all do, the best thing to do is bring the jobs home from China,” Scott said, adding: “America has cut our carbon footprint in the last 25 years.”

Haley said the U.S. needs to pressure the world’s other top polluters to cut their emissions before that happens domestically.

“Is climate change real? Yes it is,” said Haley. “But if you want to go and really change the environment then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions, that’s what our problem is.”

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley is seen after the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis. Aug. 23, 2023.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley gives an interview Wednesday after the first Republican presidential debate at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

The Republican presidential field’s embrace of the fossil fuel industry suggests that many will use the Project 2025 plan put together by a coalition of dozens of influential conservative groups.

The plan would decimate the federal government’s climate work, steering agencies to instead nurture the fossil fuel industry by stripping away regulations, cutting agency staff, and increasing oil and gas development throughout the country. It was designed to be implemented by the next Republican president on their first day in office. A number of former Trump officials helped author the plan, and some may return to the next Republican presidential administration, even if another candidate wins.

Polling consistently shows that young voters, including Republicans, expect their political leaders to do more about global warming.

Democrats have seized on the issue.

In a press conference with reporters before the debate, Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison called the GOP presidential field “the most extreme, the most divisive, the most chaotic slate of presidential candidates in history.”

“We have MAGA Republicans who are fixated on dividing us, they want to take away your freedoms, are skeptical of climate change, and are campaigning on ending Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as we know it,” he said.

This story also appears in Energywire.