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The first GOP debate reveals a disturbing level of climate change denial

The party’s tactics to deny and deflect reality are more polarizing than ever.

Elephant with dry planet earth in parched country with cracked soil.
Partisan divides on climate change have grown over the past 20 years, as GOP leaders became more emboldened in denying the science.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

For the first debate ahead of the 2024 presidential election, Republican candidates gathered on a 100-degree day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during a heat dome gripping the Midwest. Early into the televised eight-candidate forum, Fox News moderators lobbed a question pressing the presidential hopefuls for their positions on addressing climate change, an issue of growing importance for young voters in particular: “Do you believe human behavior is causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.”

None did. That the question came up at all was surprising; it remains unusual for a Republican debate to even attempt an acknowledgment of the climate crisis. What wasn’t surprising was that the discussion immediately devolved into distraction, denial, and misinformation.

Collective climate change denial in the Republican Party is not new. But the debate illustrates how the GOP’s claims are becoming increasingly audacious — as signals from human-caused climate change become all the more apparent.

Record heat? “Normal”: “It’s hot, hot, hot all right,” said Laura Ingraham on her Fox News show. “After all, we’re in the middle of a season called ‘summer.’” (Fact check: More than 3,000 temperature records were shattered in the US for the month of July alone, something scientists say would be “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.)

Forest fires? “Nature naturally burns itself off every 11 years with natural disaster forest fires,” said Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK). “This is a forest fire.” (Fact check: The severity of wildfires such as the historic blazes in Canada this year are fueled by complex conditions including forest management and drought primed by climate change.)

Stronger hurricanes? Just a part of life: “This is something that is a fact of life in the Sunshine State,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a Fox News interview. “I’ve always rejected the politicization of the weather.” (Fact check: Climate change drives the warming of ocean waters, which provide fuel for more devastating hurricanes and typhoons.)

More Americans are impacted by climate change; 62 percent of all voters recognize climate change is caused by human activity, according to a Gallup poll from this spring. Yet, climate change denial is not only alive and well in the GOP, it’s become “a lot more insidious and polarizing,” said John Cook, a University of Melbourne researcher who has tracked the path of climate disinformation online using artificial intelligence.

Here is what has made climate change denial worse.

Climate change denial is becoming more personal

Americans increasingly care about climate change, unless you’re asking the Republican voter base. The GOP’s obsession that liberal elites want to worsen the average person’s way of life through climate action has chipped away at their voters’ support for solutions and belief that the planet is warming. Party leaders and presidential candidates have insisted, wrongly, that Democrats’ climate solutions will mean bans on laundry machines, hamburgers, and gas stoves and that unabated “wokeism” has infiltrated the corporate world.

It’s a useful scare tactic, employed to delay action. Supran, who has conducted research on historical oil industry ads, found those in the 1990s “trotting out the same rhetoric, with different wording: ‘No more SUVs, no more driving around freely,’” to stave off new energy efficiency standards.

“It plays into this elitist narrative, that these are the elites and they aren’t like us and they’re trying to tell us all these cultural changes they’re trying to bring about,” explained Bob Inglis, a Republican and former South Carolina member of Congress who now runs the advocacy group RepublicEn to promote climate solutions among conservatives. Inglis said it’s helpful for the politicians who sell doubt on climate change to make it seem like people who support solutions “have their heads in the clouds trying to solve things the rest of us practical people don’t need.”

Inglis pointed out the problem with this narrative. “The thing about climate change is we’re all experiencing it right now,” he said. “We’re all in the midst of it.”

The party is making climate a culture war issue

Republicans have spent years hammering this message to the electorate and it has made a major difference to the average Republican voter. Research shows that the GOP politicians’ cues do impact how voters see the issue.

We can measure the effect of their rhetoric in the polling: A recent Gallup survey looked at partisan divides on a number of issues every 10 years from 2003 to 2023. One of the starkest shifts in the polling was around party views on global warming and environmental issues, ranking alongside gun laws and abortion as having the highest polarization. Republicans have become less concerned with global warming, even as the effects have grown more pronounced since 2013. And fewer Republicans think global warming is a result of human activity today than they did 20 years ago.

There are serious consequences to all this, and the far right plans to translate climate denial into official federal policy that encourages fossil fuels and blocks a clean energy transition, should Donald Trump win the next presidential election.

The conservative think tank Heritage Foundation has drawn a 920-page blueprint called Project 2025 to unravel all of the US’s efforts so far to tackle climate change. It is a methodical, systematic undoing of the federal bureaucracy, Politico first reported, shuttering key programs from the Environmental Protection Agency, slashing climate and clean energy solutions, blocking the expansion of wind and solar on the grid, and turning over pollution oversight to the fossil fuel industry and handpicked Republican officials.

The GOP’s only “climate” policy is actually bad for the environment

Cook has found in his research that Republicans are increasingly concerned with spreading misinformation about solutions, grossly oversimplifying what needs to be done to avoid addressing fossil fuel emissions. One of those misleading ideas is a House Republican push for the Trillion Trees Act, which has not come up for a vote.

When Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) first proposed the Trillion Trees Act in 2020, environmentalists said the bill “would significantly increase logging across America’s federal forests, convert millions of acres into industrial tree plantations, increase carbon emissions, increase wildfire risk, and harm wildlife and watersheds.” The idea was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, effectively giving loggers more allowances as long as they planted seedlings which are decades away from delivering climate benefits.

But the GOP has come to champion the idea as their climate plan. “We need to manage our forests better so our environment can be stronger,” said House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). McCarthy proposed planting trees so the US could focus on its natural gas industry, one of the world’s leading methane polluters. “Let’s replace Russian natural gas with American natural gas, and let’s not only have a cleaner world, let’s have a safer world,” he said.

Trump was in favor of a tree initiative while president, even while he was dismantling government action on climate change. And other leading climate deniers have focused on “forest management” or the timber industry as an easy fix for worsening wildfires. In a CNN town hall in June, presidential candidate Mike Pence said, “We’ve got to be able to tell some of the radical environmentalists that you’ve got to harvest some trees in the forest to keep the forest healthy.”

Planting a trillion trees to save us from climate change is not a serious proposal on its own. The authors of the 2019 study that has inspired the GOP’s talking point have themselves said that planting trees alone does not eliminate “the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

As Inglis put it, “trees can be part of the solution, but they’re not a solution on the scale of the problem. ... What we’re looking for is a worldwide solution to the challenge of climate change.” Inglis’s group advocates for what he calls a conservative approach that does address the scale of the problem, a revenue-neutral carbon tax along with a border tax adjustment that works across the economy.

The GOP idea to plant more trees may seem innocuous compared to calling climate change a hoax, but the outcome is the same. They will try “anything that pushes the problem downstream,” said Supran, to shut down more immediate action. Invariably, inertia on climate change benefits the status quo — which just so happens to benefit fossil fuel industries, a major benefactor of the Republican Party.

“There’s so much talk but so little commitment to action both from the GOP and fossil fuel interests,” Supran said. “I feel like we’re in some kind of twilight zone, the talking points go round and round. The end result is just the same as it’s always been, which is lackluster action.”

Update, August 24, 11:05 am ET: This story was originally published on August 11 and has been updated to include information from the first Republican presidential debate.

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