It was an unusual opening for a Republican primary debate. Barely 20 minutes into the 2 hour GOP presidential debate on Fox News, moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum played a video from Alexander Diaz, a student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., who submitted a question on behalf of fellow young conservatives.
"How will you as both president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party calm their fears that the Republican Party doesn't care about climate change?" Diaz asked.
The moderators then asked the eight candidates directly whether they believe human behavior is causing climate change.
They got very few direct answers — despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels.
"The climate change agenda is a hoax," said former tech and finance executive Vivek Ramaswamy, in the night's clearest answer. Former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley acknowledged climate change is real but downplayed American responsibility, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sidestepped the question altogether. Many candidates did not answer.
Some young conservative climate advocates said the fact that the question was even asked marked progress. Polling shows that overall, Republicans are less likely to see climate change as a threat. But young voters across party lines list climate as a top issue. Strategists warn that if Republicans can't talk about climate, they may lose the younger voting base crucial to swing race wins.
"It is an issue that is mainstream for conservatives, swing voters and Democrats, and I am glad we got to see the candidates speak to it," said Danielle Butcher Franz, CEO of the American Conservation Coalition, an organization mobilizing conservatives to take action in addressing climate change.
"I would love for the candidates to recognize the opportunity there is here for Republicans to chart a new, more optimistic vision for climate action," Butcher Franz said.
The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found nearly 60% of those ages 18 to 29 believe climate change should be a priority, even at the risk of slowing economic growth. A larger group, 64%, believe climate change is a major threat, and 72% responded that climate change is affecting their local community.
"This is such a winning issue, we just need to be more bullish on it," Butcher Franz said.
As Republicans look to make inroads in swing states, climate should be top of mind, said Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.
"Independents and young Republicans are increasingly worried about climate change," Maibach said. "Some Republican candidates have gotten a memo from their pollster that young Republican voters don't want this climate denial nonsense anymore."
How some of the candidates responded
Republican candidates on Wednesday night's debate stage differed in how much they were willing to acknowledge the human contribution to climate change, and whether it's a problem. Even candidates who acknowledged that climate change poses a threat expressed strong support for the continued production of fossil fuels, and skepticism of technologies like wind and solar power and electric vehicles.
When moderators asked the presidential hopefuls to raise their hands if they believe human behavior is causing climate change, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson began to raise his hand. He was the only one who appeared to do so before DeSantis interrupted, saying, "We are not school children, let's have the debate."
DeSantis went on to criticize Biden's initial response to the wildfires in Maui. But he didn't directly answer whether he believes climate change is driven by human behavior.
Ramaswamy was the most strident, adopting former President Donald Trump's language, calling climate change a "hoax" and criticizing the Biden administration's efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"The anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy," Ramaswamy said. "More people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate."
Earlier in the debate, Ramaswamy expressed his support for fossil fuels, listing nuclear energy as the only low-carbon power source he favors. Ramaswamy said he wanted to expand oil and gas production, "drill, frack, burn coal and embrace nuclear."
Haley took a different approach, acknowledging climate change is real. But she minimized the need for U.S. action.
"Is climate change real? Yes, it is," she said. "But if you want to go and really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions."
China is currently the single largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, followed by the United States and India. The U.S. is by far the largest historical contributor to climate change, along with other rich countries, and has significantly higher per capita emissions than either China or India. The Chinese government says it will reach peak emissions before 2030, and cut emissions thereafter.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum attacked potential climate solutions, saying that Chinese solar panels are made by factories powered by coal plants. China still gets about half of its energy from coal plants, and is opening more new coal plants than any other country, even as it leads the world in producing renewable energy. It's become a common conservative approach, to attack renewable energy and other climate-friendly technology like electric vehicles.
George Behrakis, president of the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, which advocates for market-based solutions to climate change, said he wasn't satisfied with the replies.
"I would've liked to see clearer answers to the question asked, and was disappointed that many of the candidates didn't get to address the topic at all," Behrakis said. He also wanted to hear candidates offer what he sees as conservative policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon pricing.
"As I see it, the party, and our country, have so much to gain if Republicans play offense and take an affirmative stand on this issue," he said.
Early in the debate candidates called for increasing U.S. oil and gas production.
"We need to lower your gas prices," DeSantis said. "We're going to open up all energy production. We will be energy-dominant again in this country."
Despite GOP claims that the Biden administration is limiting domestic energy production, U.S oil production is projected to hit a record high this year.
Meanwhile, scientists say the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions from sources like oil and gas roughly in half by 2030 in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Still, progress for the party, experts say
Maibach of George Mason University said the bar for Republican engagement on climate policy is "low," but the presence of the questions early in the debate does show a shift, even if candidates shied away from the issue.
"[Young Republicans] genuinely want to see some leadership from their party," Maibach said. "And if the leaders of their party or the people who are asking to become leaders are not taking this seriously ... I think young voters are going to become less willing to show up and cast their vote for the Republican candidates and in districts where the margins are thin."
For some young conservatives, just hearing about climate change on the debate stage was a step forward.
NPR's Julia Simon contributed to this report.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Something unusual happened in the Republican presidential debate this week. The candidates were asked about climate change, a subject that the Republican Party often downplays or ignores or mocks. One of the first questions put climate change front and center.
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MARTHA MACCALLUM: Do you believe in - human behavior is causing climate change? Raise your hand if you do.
INSKEEP: Moderators did not get a clear answer from everybody on that one, but NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo is here. Good morning.
XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Did it surprise you at all that this topic even came up?
BUSTILLO: You know, I wasn't actually personally surprised, but I know climate change traditionally also isn't a major issue for the Republican Party.
BUSTILLO: However, I do talk a lot to young voters, and it is an issue for younger voters across party lines. There is a group of young conservatives who really wanted climate on the agenda in this debate, and they got it. The moderators played a question from a college student named Alexander Diaz, and he asked candidates to reassure young conservatives.
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ALEXANDER DIAZ: How will you, as both president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party, calm their fears that the Republican Party doesn't care about climate change?
INSKEEP: This is really interesting because we think of it as a partisan divide. But I think you're telling me it's more of a generational divide. Younger people, regardless of party, are more likely to recognize the science here. So how did the candidates answer?
BUSTILLO: Well, there really was a range. Vivek Ramaswamy - he's a 38-year-old tech executive - said the, quote, "climate agenda is a hoax." Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pretty much avoided the question. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, however, acknowledged that climate change is a threat, but she downplayed U.S. responsibility.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NIKKI HALEY: Is climate change real? Yes, it is. But if you want to go and really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.
BUSTILLO: I should note that while China is currently the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S. has significantly higher per capita emissions than either China or India. Other candidates sidestepped the issue by attacking climate solutions like renewable energy production, but they didn't necessarily offer alternatives.
INSKEEP: OK. So you're telling me that young conservatives have driven this onto the agenda and made Republican leaders respond. How did the people you spoke with feel about the answers?
BUSTILLO: Well, I spoke to Danielle Butcher Franz. She's the CEO of the American Conservation Coalition. She said it's at least a start that the candidates got asked about climate change.
DANIELLE BUTCHER FRANZ: Let's do some level-setting on that. I think most people understand that in a Republican primary, climate change is not going to be the No. 1 issue. But I think we're looking for an acknowledgement of the problem and an understanding of the solutions.
BUSTILLO: She says that there's still a lot of room for improvement, and Republicans need to find ways to own the issue if they want the support of younger voters. That's also shown in recent polling. An NPR poll this month found that nearly 60% of voters ages 18 to 29 agreed addressing climate change should be a priority.
INSKEEP: You know, we've done some reporting on this on the program. A lot of conservatives are now approaching climate change by saying, OK, human-caused climate change is real, but it's not a big deal. They still don't want to do a lot about it. Could climate change play a big role in the 2024 election?
BUSTILLO: Well, like most election questions, the truth is it's too soon to tell.
BUSTILLO: But it is a big issue for young voters. And with young voters, sometimes the question is whether they choose to turn out or not, whether they're motivated. And so an issue like climate change could play a role in, particularly, really close and tight races. Edward Maibach is the director of George Mason's Center for Climate Change Communication, and he said the debate suggests GOP candidates are at least hearing from younger voters.
EDWARD MAIBACH: Some Republican candidates have gotten a memo from their pollster that young Republican voters don't want this climate denial nonsense anymore.
BUSTILLO: He said the bar is low, but it's still some progress.
INSKEEP: NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thanks. Go get some coffee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.