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Policy experts sound off about the GOP debate’s big climate moment: ‘Republicans deserve to lose if they are climate deniers’

Considering nearly 70% of young Republicans are concerned about climate change, this was far from a winning message.

Photo Credit: Getty

It might shock you to know that the first and only audience question at the first GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee was from a young conservative concerned about climate change

Unfortunately, when asked to raise their hand in response to the question of whether they believed climate change was real, candidates didn’t exactly seize the opportunity. Considering nearly 70% of young Republicans are concerned about climate change, this was far from a winning message. 

Yet the mainstream media’s obsession with the lack of hand-raising and The New York Times’ characterization of the conversation as “chaotic” doesn’t paint the full picture. The question actually led to an important discussion that exposed candidates’ stances on the issue. 

In fact, one candidate, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, stated clearly that climate change was real and that we need common-sense solutions to solve it. 

The young person who posed this question to the presidential hopefuls on stage was Alexander Diaz, a conservative climate activist for the American Conservation Coalition. ACC is the largest right-of-center youth environmental organization in the country, with more than 20,000 members nationwide. Young people will soon make up a majority of voters, and climate change is a top issue for them. 

Instead of stumbling to answer a simple question, Republicans should leave a legacy on climate change by owning the issue and offering solutions rooted in conservative values — if not, they may face tough odds at the polls.

Don’t believe me? Dial testing showed a resounding negative reaction to Vivek Ramaswamy’s comments about climate change being a hoax, not to mention the overwhelming boos his out-of-touch statement was met with during the debate. 

On the other hand, dial testing veered strongly in a positive direction when Nikki Haley confirmed she believed climate change was real, stating: “We do care about clean air, clean water. We want to see that taken care of, but there is a right way to do it.” 

Haley proposed actionable solutions to solving the problem — emphasizing the need for American leadership and competition with adversaries like China. Candidates Asa Hutchinson, Doug Burgum, and Tim Scott also attempted to productively engage with the question during the short time it was offered. 

As my colleague Benji Backer, executive chairman of the ACC, said, the climate question was “historic” because of the way it voiced the concerns of young conservative voters. 

“That we didn’t get an immediate hand raise speaks to how much work we have left to do,” Backer told the Guardian. “Young people will never vote for a candidate that doesn’t believe in climate change … Republicans deserve to lose if they are climate deniers and don’t have a plan.”

A conservative approach to climate change promotes innovation, brings jobs and manufacturing back home, punishes our adversaries, and unleashes American energy. 

One would be hard-pressed to find a GOP candidate who outwardly disagrees with these kinds of solutions, yet sitting idly by on climate change won’t win over voters. All Republican presidential candidates must champion climate solutions going forward. 

Conservatives can no longer get away with sitting on the sidelines, especially if their goal is to win elections. The next Republican candidate must lead on climate change for the party’s sake — and the sake of our country and future generations. 

Sarah Jensen is a Policy Associate for the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing young people around environmental action.

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