Climate Remains a Non-Issue in GOP Primary Season

Even in a week when the Obama administration unveiled its major climate initiative, Republican presidential candidates ignored the topic altogether.

Ten Republican candidates squared off in their first debate Thursday night in Cleveland
A lively Republican debate Thursday night skirted the issue of climate change altogether. Credit: Reuters

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The top 10 Republican candidates for president spent 120 minutes of their first primary season debate Thursday night in Cleveland duking it out over issues like foreign policy, national security, immigration, abortion and the economy.

Missing from the conversation, however, was climate change. Not a single substantive question was asked by Fox News moderators about global warming or energy. Except for a brief nods to the Keystone XL pipeline and undefined “out-of-control regulations,” the candidates didn’t raise the issue themselves either.

The forum, which at times felt more theatrical than political, is the latest example how one of the nation’s most divisive topics has been ignored in the GOP primary thus far.

“Climate change is just not a huge concern in the Republican party,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Maybe that will change in the general election, but I expect for the primary it will continue to be a non-issue.”

Where the presidential candidates fall on climate change
See the full graphic: Where Presidential Candidates Stand on Climate Change

So far, it seems a lot like 2012, when climate change was barely whispered about in either the primaries or the general election campaigns.

But now, its omission is even more glaring, considering the Obama administration just this week revealed its most ambitious regulations aimed at climate change ever, the Clean Power Plan. Also, environmentalists have waged a multi-year campaign to raise the issue’s profile in national, state and local elections. They’ve spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns and polling.

Their tactics, however, failed to resonate with GOP voters during last year’s midterm elections, when Democrats lost several Congressional races they considered shoo-ins, including in Colorado, North Carolina and Alaska. The debates this week are evidence that, one year later, not much has changed.

Earlier on Thursday during the so-called Kids Table or Happy Hour debate among the Republican candidates not polling in the top 10, Fox News host Bill Hemmer asked South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham how voters could trust him after he supported the Obama administration’s climate agenda. During a presidential forum in Manchester, N.H. on Monday, one out of more than 50 questions addressed  global warming or energy. The issue has also been absent from most town hall meetings, diner speeches and backyard meet-and-greets as the 17 Republican candidates have zigzagged across New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

The rare times voters have asked about climate change, candidates have largely sidestepped the question by addressing job growth or environmental conservation.

Recent polls show the majority of Republican voters support measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions, increase renewable energy and improve energy efficiency. More than two-thirds of Republican voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina, for example, say it is important for candidates to have clean energy plans, according to a poll by the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Action Fund. So far, no GOP candidates have released such plans.

“Results like these don’t mean very much because they don’t talk about how much Republicans actually prioritize climate over other issues,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. “While they may support it, it is a bottom rung issue for them.”

“This primary won’t be about climate change,” he said. “Like elections before it, the bread and butter here is war and peace, and the economy.”

Nearly all the Republican White House contenders—with the exception of Graham and former New York governor George Pataki—either deny that global warming is happening, or question how much is the result of human activity.  It is worth noting that a large amount of Republican financial support comes from fossil fuel interests like the Koch brothers.  

“Campaigns and debates are about highlighting differences between candidates,” said Daniel J. Weiss, senior vice president of campaigns for the League of Conservation Voters. “It may be that it didn’t come up much during the debates this week because they really don’t differ on this issue.”

Political experts and environmentalists argue this silence on climate change won’t last into the general election. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has pledged to make it a focal point in her campaign, which will force the Republican nominee to address it as well.

“It is not incredibly surprising it hasn’t been a key issue so far,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the NRDC Action Fund. “But it will be harder to ignore it when the candidates are trying to appeal to the mass public. Climate denial makes you look out of touch.”

O’Connell, the Republican strategist, said GOP candidates may be purposefully avoiding the issue until the general election in order to attract moderate and independent voters who may be more supportive of climate action than the conservative voters who typically dominate primaries.

“While this isn’t a very big issue among Republicans, it is among Democrats,” he said. “Not talking about it now allows them to massage their statements if they have to scooch to the left.”