Republican candidates in a punchy debate held seven weeks before the first nominating votes in Iowa did not discuss the landmark climate agreement reached by nearly 190 nations four days ago in Paris.
It was the fifth debate, and the nine candidates focused almost exclusively on foreign policy following the San Bernardino, Calif., massacre that left 14 people dead earlier this month. CNN moderators did not ask any questions about the climate agreement during the two-hour program.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich was the only candidate to mention the Paris climate negotiations, though he didn't refer to the agreement that sets the world on a path to limit post-industrial warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
"When I see they had a climate conference over in Paris, they should have been talking about destroying ISIS because they're involved in virtually every country," Kasich said to applause, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group.
Celebrity businessman Donald Trump also ridiculed President Obama for prioritizing climate change as a key national security risk.
"The biggest problem this world has today is not President Obama with global warming, which is inconceivable; this is what he's saying," Trump said. "The biggest problem is nuclear, nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon."
The fifth Republican debate comes as Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are ascending in the polls. The rise comes as both candidates focus on controversial issues. For Trump, his inflammatory comments about barring Muslims from entering the United States appear to have helped him reach new highs in favorability. Thirty-eight percent of registered Republicans support him in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday.
Cruz has climbed steadily throughout December and is now favored by 15 percent of Republican respondents. That puts him in second place for the first time. It comes as he increasingly highlights climate change as a liberal issue that's driven by corruptible scientific findings (ClimateWire, Dec. 9).
Support for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has fallen by 10 points since November. Twelve percent of respondents support him in the new poll. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is tied with Carson for third place. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's favorability continues to slide downward; he captured the support of 5 percent of respondents.
Cruz escalates climate attacks
In another sign of Cruz's rising popularity, he topped Trump among Iowa voters for the first time. Success in the conservative caucus state, which votes in seven weeks, is key to Cruz's path toward the nomination.
His stinging criticism of President Obama's efforts to curtail climbing temperatures could play a part in his rise among some of the state's most conservative voters. The climate issue doesn't approach terrorism or the economy in voter importance, but it could polish Cruz's image as a defender of small government, said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.
Past winners in Iowa have sailed to victory with the help of social conservative caucusgoers, a group that accounts for about 40 percent of the electorate, Hagle estimates. Cruz is making inroads there, and he could also appeal to some fiscal conservatives, the next-largest group of voters, with his attacks on large government programs, like those that impose climate regulations.
"There have been concerns in the past of EPA overreach and things of that nature," Hagle said. "So if that's all connected into what Cruz is talking about regarding climate change and what the government's doing about it, then certainly that's something that ... may help some voters be comfortable."
The debate was interlaced with two television ads by NextGen Climate, the advocacy organization created by billionaire Tom Steyer. The ads urged Republicans to propose plans for major investments in clean energy by 2030.
"Any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace clean energy is putting themselves at odds with the American people -- and Republican voters," Steyer said in a statement. "Is the Republican presidential field really going to ignore this tremendous economic opportunity?"
Another poll released yesterday reinforced the notion that the conservative presidential candidates could appeal to far-right voters with hostile messages about climate action.
The report by Yale and George Mason universities found that registered voters prefer generic candidates who support climate action. On the flip side, even more respondents said they would not vote for someone who deliberately opposes efforts to address warming -- except, that is, for the most conservative voters.
On that question, 13 percent of respondents said they prefer a candidate who strongly opposes climate action. For them, Cruz could seem appealing.
Some N.H. Republicans see warming as obvious
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, said that Cruz and others who reject the climate science are "feeding a narrative of ... conspiracy theories" that have surfaced in his surveys. "People who do say it's a hoax, they say it's scientists making up data, that it's a U.N. plot to take away American sovereignty, that it's a get-rich scheme by Al Gore and his friends."
Yet Cruz might find it hard explain those views if he wins the nomination, when he would need the help of moderate Republicans and independent voters to beat the Democratic nominee, he added.
"While it may make political sense in the short term, it may kill you in the general," Leiserowitz said, noting that his survey also found that belief in global warming among conservative Republicans has jumped 15 percentage points since spring 2014.
For Cruz, opposing climate action could help him attract conservative voters in Iowa, South Carolina and some Super Tuesday primary states like Alabama, Oklahoma and Virginia. All of those contests happen within a month, beginning with Iowa on Feb. 1.
An adviser to Cruz's campaign said a path to victory for the Texas senator begins with a win or a near-win in Iowa, a "showing" in New Hampshire and strong outcomes in the so-called SEC primary (a term referring to collegiate athletics' Southeastern Conference) on Super Tuesday featuring 12 states.
But even as his efforts to denounce climate action could help him win over caucusgoers in Iowa, it could be a liability in New Hampshire, where more people will vote on Feb. 9. That means the electorate will be more moderate.
Doug Scamman, the former Republican statehouse speaker in New Hampshire, supports Kasich in part because he believes in climate change. He said a serious candidate wouldn't deny that it's happening.
"I think they should think about it, because it's obviously getting warmer and we need to know what's happening and get it done," Scamman said in a recent interview.
He's also a farmer. When he was a boy, the average frost occurred between Sept. 17 and 20. Now it's later. He sometimes is able to grow tomatoes in an unheated greenhouse until Thanksgiving. There's "no way" that would have happened years ago, he said laughing.
"You can see the change in plants and animals that are around," Scamman said. "Don't ask me to tell you which ones now. But you can see it."