Most Republican candidates avoid discussing climate change

By Evan Lehmann | 10/29/2015 08:52 AM EDT

Three Republican presidential candidates stated their belief in climate change last night during two debates that wandered from economic policies to sharp attacks on the media. The trio combined capture less than 5 percent of voters’ support in polling.

Three Republican presidential candidates stated their belief in climate change last night during two debates that wandered from economic policies to sharp attacks on the media. The trio combined capture less than 5 percent of voters’ support in polling.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie condemned Democratic efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions through regulations while pointing to his state’s success at installing solar systems on residential rooftops and businesses.

He expressed support for oil and gas production but also noted that solar and wind are cheap sources of electricity in some areas of the country. He claimed that in New Jersey, "we work with the private sector to make solar energy affordable."


"That’s the way we deal with global warming, climate change or any of those problems," Christie said in the prime-time debate on CNBC. "Not through government intervention, not through government taxes, and for God’s sake don’t send Washington another dime until they stop wasting the money they’re already spending."

Conservative critics say New Jersey’s solar success is driven by government programs, including a renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to derive more than 20 percent of their electricity from clean sources. And a federal investment tax credit decreases the cost of solar projects there by 30 percent.

"He may as well have said, ‘I’m the government handout guy,’" said Mike McKenna, a GOP energy adviser.

Christie received the only question related to climate change in the prime-time debate, held in Boulder, Colo. It featured the 10 leading candidates, including front-runners Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Christie is near last in polling with about 3 percentage points.

There was more discussion about climate policies in the undercard debate held earlier in the evening. It featured four candidates who barely register in national polls.

A problem ‘somebody better solve’

In that undercard debate, tne moderator asked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) if he was at the wrong party’s debate, pointing to his unorthodox positions on climate change and immigration.

"I’m trying to solve problems that somebody better solve," Graham answered.

"I have been to the Antarctic. I’ve been to Alaska," he added. "I’m not a scientist, and I’ve got the grades to prove it. But I talked to the climatologists of the world, and 90 percent of them are telling me that the greenhouse gas effect is real, that we’re heating up the planet. I just want a solution that would be good for the economy, that doesn’t destroy it."

George Pataki, the former governor of New York, expressed frustration with his party for rejecting mainstream scientific findings.

"A lot of things that trouble me about the Republican Party is too often we question science that everyone accepts," he said. "It’s ridiculous to think that in the 21st century, we’re questioning whether or not vaccines are the appropriate way to go. Of course they are. It’s also not appropriate to think that human activity, putting CO2 into the atmosphere, doesn’t make the Earth warmer, all things being equal. It does. It’s uncontroverted."

"I think part of the problem is Republicans think about climate change and say, ‘Oh, my God, we’re gonna have higher taxes, more Obama, more big government, EPA shutting down factories,’" Pataki said. "That’s not the solution that I seek. I want Republicans to embrace innovation and technology."

The debate collides with rising contentiousness in Congress and the states over the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s climate regulations requiring power plants to reduce their emissions 32 percent by 2030. Colorado is a symbol of the partisan split on those rules.

The state’s Republican attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, joined two dozen other states in a lawsuit last week to stop the federal climate rules. That contradicts the views of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who supports the plan. Hickenlooper has asked the state Supreme Court to examine whether Coffman has jurisdiction. The governor says he holds the final decision on the rules. So does Coffman.

The performance last night also intersects with an eruption in Congress over the federal plan, which became official last Friday and is now open to legislative attempts at rolling it back. Opponents filed resolutions of disapproval earlier this week in an attempt to reverse the regulations. Success is unlikely because Obama could veto those measures, but the strength of opposition, at 49 senators, could continue interparty arguments over climate issues heading into the primary contests next year.

Ignoring an issue ‘that connects with young people’?

The Clean Power Plan provides an attack point for Republican candidates without making them define their views on climate change. Candidates who believe in global warming are describing the plan as an economic anchor; so are those who question the science behind warming.

Some conservative policy experts who support climate action express limited optimism that the GOP candidates are slowly transitioning away from attacking the science directly. That’s token progress in their view.

But that seems to frustrate others. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who supports former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said recently that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s efforts to downplay his skepticism, without accepting the presence of man-made warming, fall short of where the party should be. Curbelo recently joined 10 House Republicans on a resolution that urges action on climate change.

"But to ignore it, which is what many in our party have chosen to do … in recent history, is just irresponsible and unrealistic," Curbelo said. "The first concrete step — and we’ve taken it here in the House with our resolution — to addressing this issue is recognizing that it exists, and that it’s real. And depoliticizing it, focusing on the facts, on the science, on the communities that are experiencing flooding."

Even as Republicans tiptoe around climate issues, Democrats are jostling for the lead position to address warming. All three Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, say they’re best suited to expand on Obama’s emissions policies.

Sanders ceded ground to Clinton on her email controversy in the party’s inaugural debate two weeks ago. But he’s been more aggressive since then by saying she’s shifting positions on issues like climate, trade and gay marriage.

"I’m glad that Hillary Clinton has come on board and now said, well, she’s against the Keystone pipeline," Sanders said this week in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. "Well, you know what? If you take climate change seriously and you understand the cataclysmic impact that it will have on this planet, it is a no-brainer. I’ve been against that from day one. Everybody knows that."

O’Malley also suggested this week that Clinton’s decision to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline earlier this month, after years of withholding judgement, raised questions about her climate convictions. O’Malley, who is 52, also claimed that he can win younger voters.

"I don’t believe young people have checked out, especially on climate change, that defining issue where Hillary Clinton shifted position right before the debate [on Oct. 13]," he said on MSNBC. "She’s against the Keystone [pipeline] now. I’ve been clear on that, and I’ve been clear about that throughout my service. And that connects with young people."