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Expert says GOP candidates must discuss one issue to win young Americans' support: 'Already, Republicans are at a disadvantage'

The second debate was an opportunity for candidates to show the American people how they would tackle our most pressing issues.

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Photo Credit: Getty

After seven Republican presidential hopefuls took the debate stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday night, climate advocates were left scratching their heads and seeking more answers.

Despite the fact that a majority of Americans identify climate change as a major threat, very little time was dedicated to climate and energy in the second Republican presidental debate ahead of primaries for the 2024 election. This comes after an important — yet incomplete — mention of climate at the first presidential debate in Milwaukee.

What happened at the second Republican debate?

In nearly two hours, climate and energy were mere afterthoughts in answers to questions on the economy, immigration, education, and foreign policy. With only a few energy questions focused on the old adage "drill, baby, drill," candidates weren't given much of an opportunity to tackle climate head-on.

For only brief moments, Vivek Ramaswamy supported clean nuclear energy, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sparred on fracking, and former Vice President Mike Pence touted an all-of-the-above energy approach with the goal of American energy independence.

Why is this discussion important?

Already, Republicans are at a disadvantage in the climate discussion. Years of denial and apathy from party leaders have trained the American people not to expect a climate dialogue on a Republican presidential debate stage. 

Yet, the tides are turning, and presidential candidates must embrace and reflect this change. Avoiding the subject in 2023 only drives more young people to the left politically.

While it was encouraging that candidates were asked to answer "the climate question" at the first debate, very little time was devoted to debating climate solutions in California on Wednesday night. The second debate should have been an opportunity for candidates to show the American people how they would tackle our most pressing environmental and energy challenges.

With a question or two about energy independence, candidates had ample time to chart a vision on the future of American energy and emissions reductions. Whether it factored into a candidate's economic plan or within a strategy to beat China, an America-first climate agenda is something all conservatives should champion.

Importantly, Americans across the political spectrum want climate action. In fact, a majority of young Republicans are concerned about the quality of our environment, with 32 percent going so far as to say they worry "a great deal," and it follows they would want their leaders to address this concern. Ignoring the issue over the course of a nearly two-hour-long debate is more than disappointing; it's an assurance of electoral irrelevancy for the conservative movement.

Where do we go from here?

Charting a path forward on climate is best for the planet and our country, and will result in electoral relevancy with key constituencies: young people, women, and independents. Climate apathy will only succeed in alienating these voting blocs. 

Climate change is the environmental challenge of our time, and we need both political parties at the table to fight back. On the debate stage last night, Vivek Ramaswamy touted engaging on TikTok as a way to reach young Americans and empower the next generation; he is mistaken. Young voters don't want candidates who pander to them with silly dances and social media trends. To win the favor of young voters, candidates must simply show a willingness to address the issues that matter most. 

Put simply, to win young people over, candidates must be prepared to leave a climate legacy.

Danielle Butcher Franz is the CEO of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), the largest right-of-center environmental organization. Follow her on X @DanielleBFranz.

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