More Republican voters are tying extreme weather to the climate crisis. Why don’t their candidates care?

Although Democrats and Independents have been more likely to accept the scientific evidence of climate change, Republican voters are quickly catching up, Louise Boyle and Eric Garcia report

Tuesday 03 October 2023 18:07 BST
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<p>From left: Republican presidential candidates North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and former Vice President Mike Pence, at the Republican presidential primary debate on Sept. 27, 2023. Inset, former president Donald Trump </p>

From left: Republican presidential candidates North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and former Vice President Mike Pence, at the Republican presidential primary debate on Sept. 27, 2023. Inset, former president Donald Trump

After a summer of floods, fires, and relentless heat, more Americans than ever are blaming extreme weather events on the climate crisis.

New polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Researchrevealed that 87 per cent of Americans have experienced at least one extreme weather event in the past five years, and three-quarters believe that climate change at least partially played a role.

But as with most hot-button issues, views cut down party lines. Nearly all Democrats (93 per cent) connected more extreme weather events to the climate crisis, compared to just under half of Republicans (48 per cent).

Although liberals and independents have been more likely to accept the scientific evidence of climate change, Republicans are quickly catching up.

The most recent poll showed a six per cent jump in Republicans linking extreme weather and climate from when AP-NORC posed the same question in April. The US South, home to predominantly red states, has experienced brutal, 100-plus degree temperatures for long stretches this summer.

When compared to data from 2017, provided toThe Independent by AP-NORC, Republican numbers have nearly doubled. Only 27 per cent of Republicans thought severe weather was caused “entirely or mostly by climate change” six years ago.

Yet, growing concern among Republican voters doesn’t appear to have registered with the party’s current crop of presidential candidates.

At the first GOP debate in August, the climate crisis was largely dismissed by candidates after a young conservative asked how they would “calm... fears that the Republican Party doesn’t care about climate change.”

The debate moderators then asked for a show of hands from candidates if they agreed that human behaviour was leading to rising temperatures. No hands went up.

Political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, a multimillionaire businessman from Ohio, was the most brazen in his denial. "The climate change agenda is a hoax,” he told the audience, and was met with boos.

The remains of a destroyed home in Keaton Beach, Florida on August 30, 2023, following the passage of Hurricane Idalia

Ron DeSantis obfuscated and criticised President Biden’s response to the Maui wildfires. The Florida governor is attempting to walk the fine line between the leader of a state being battered by more intense hurricanes and sea-level rise, and an “anti-woke,” anti-science agenda.

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley acknowledged climate change is real but downplayed America’s role and blamed China – despite the US being the second largest polluter and having caused the largest share of emissions over the past 200 years.

Former president Donald Trump, who has declined to attend the debates but has a commanding lead among voters, is a seasoned climate denier.

During his time in the White House, Mr Trump rolled back more than 100 environmental and climate regulations that allowed more oil drilling and eased off on industrial polluters.

He repeatedly denied the existence of the climate crisis while president and has continued out of office, claiming last year that rising sea levels were actually a good thing and would create “more oceanfront property”.

Braxton Hicks, seven, of Livingston, Texas, holds his face to a portable fan to cool off during a Little League tournament in Ruston, Louisiana on August 9. Summer 2023 has brought relentless 100-degree temperatures across large parts of the US south

Last week, he heaped praise on British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for rolling back UK net-zero targets. “I always knew Sunak was smart, that he wasn’t going to destroy and bankrupt his nation for fake climate alarmists that don’t have a clue,” Mr Trump wrote. On Friday, he told an audience in California that forest fires could be stopped if we “dampen our forests with water”.

These kinds of spurious statements are finding little purchase, particularly with young Republicans who are significantly more worried about climate change than older voters.

Another red flag for the Republican party is that swing voters, who will decide the 2024 election, are very much in favour of climate action and clean energy.

Some members of the Conservative Climate Caucus also appeared unconcerned by the lackluster Republican candidates’ responses on climate change.

“I haven’t really put much thought into it,” Rep Tim Burchett, a Republican from Tennessee, told The Independent this week. “I don’t watch debates - it’s you bring your side, I bring my side and we both leave thinking we’ve won.”

Congressman Tony Gonzales, who represents a district in southern Texas, said he was focused on migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border. “I try not to pay attention to all the other noise,” he added.

The Republican party hasn’t always shown such aversion to environmental threats.

Former president Donald Trump speaks at the GOP Fall convention on September 29, 2023 in Anaheim, California where he told the audience that forest fires could be stopped if we “dampen our forests with water”

The Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, bedrock legislation to protect Americans from pollution, were signed by former Republican president Richard Nixon in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, President George HW Bush signed the Global Climate Change Research Act and made key amendments to the Clean Air Act.

Christopher Barnard, president of the American Conservation Coalition, told The Independent he was “baffled” that Republican presidential candidates weren’t offering conservative solutions on the issue, describing the failure as a “ticking time-bomb” for the party.

“Our message to candidates and campaigns has been that conservatives can either fumble on the climate issue, or they can win over independents, young Americans and young conservatives who care,” said Mr Barnard, who leads the largest conservative environmental group in the US.

Some 81 per cent of Republicans, aged 18 to 44, think climate change is now a severe threat, or may get worse in the years ahead, according to a 2023 poll from Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions.

The first Republican presidential campaign in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on August 23, 2023

Mr Barnard said that Republican candidates were going to struggle to gain the trust of these demographics and win their votes if they ignored climate and environmental issues.

“Especially in a general election where, more and more, these demographics are trending towards Democrats not Republicans,” he added.

Mr Barnard favoured the rhetoric from candidates, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, in the debate, and added that North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has done “great work” on clean energy projects in his state.

“We see some of the candidates start flirting with this [issue] but not enough yet to really convince young voters and independents,” he said.

“There’s an opportunity for Republican candidates to acknowledge this concern that young people have but to then come with better ideas – talk about the ways that the US can lead with innovation and grow the economy at the same time as protecting the environment.

“That’s a message that resonates with people. Ignoring the problem, or fumbling on it, does nothing to increase your credibility with these key voter demographics.”

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