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Biden wins Republican debate on climate change
Not a single GOP presidential candidate ready to tackle biggest challenge to US, world
Bayani S. Cruz 28 Aug 2023

For those of us in Asia who follow climate-change developments in the US closely, something quite important happened at the Republican party’s presidential primary debate last week.

To put things in context, there are a few different ways people can answer when asked the question: Who do you think won the debate?

Some people, especially journalists and analysts, look for specific policy ideas. Others look at who got the most attention or who made the most noise. Still others try to guess at whose answers resonate most with the potential voters.

After watching the debate, there didn’t seem to be a lot of policy ideas that came from any of the candidates, although all of them tried to out-noise each other. Also, I couldn’t guess whose answers resonated the most.

But when it came to the most important question, knowing who won the debate was quite simple. The question was: Do you believe human behavior causes climate change?

Now this is the first time this question on climate change was ever brought up in a Republican primary debate.

“It’s actually a historic moment and will be seen as a marker in the sand,” said Benjamin Barker, founder and chairman of the American Conservation Coalition, a right-leaning, pro-Republican environmental advocacy organization, in an interview with CBS News immediately after the debate.

Bringing up this question during the debate was a huge deal, especially for a growing number of pro-climate change activists and voters within the Republican party. There was apparently extensive lobbying by the pro-climate change activists within the GOP (Grand Old Party, another name for the Republicans) to have this question asked during the debate.

It’s also a question that resonates with most American voters under 30 years old. These are voters who will be very important during the 2024 US general election.

The debate moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands if they did believe in climate change and none of them instinctively raised their hands. Granted, at that point one of the candidates (Florida governor Ron Desantis) rudely interrupted the moderators with a side comment that side-tracked the debate, so it can be argued that nobody had a chance to actually raise (or not raise) their hand.

But it cannot be denied that not a single one of the Republican presidential candidates when asked that question, instinctively raised their hand. Only two of the candidates later responded to the question, but they gave incredibly weak answers.

Millionaire and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a known anti-ESG (environmental, social and governance) proponent and climate-change denier, explicitly said: “Climate change is a hoax.” This is rather ironic because, at 38 years old, Ramaswamy is the youngest among the candidates, belongs to the demographic who are going to have to live with the consequences of climate change, and who are in the best position to do something about addressing it in the meantime.

Because of this statement, Ramaswamy’s standing among focused groups who were following the debate reportedly plummeted immediately after he made these remarks.

Former ambassador Nikki Haley, the only female among the candidates, acknowledged that climate change is real, and that there is a need to do something about it, but that she disagrees with President Joe Biden’s climate-change agenda.

Haley also compared the US track record on carbon emissions with that of China, which she argued is causing more carbon emissions and, therefore, poses the question of why should the US cut carbon dioxide emissions when other countries are doing more to pollute the environment? She also did not say anything about what she plans to do to address climate change if she is elected.

Anyway, what this clearly shows is that there wasn’t any candidate among the Republicans who is ready to address the biggest challenge the US and the rest of the world is facing in our lifetimes.

Following the debate, there were pro-Republican analysts who say that all of the candidates, except Ramaswamy, believe in climate change. It’s just that they didn’t get a chance to say it during the debate.

But it wasn’t even a question asking: Do you have like a good plan to deal with climate change?  It was just a question of: Do you believe in it? 

For us in Asia, and the rest of the world, this is a strong signal that if any of these candidates become US president, the country will give up on leading the global fight against climate change again.

That will be the situation for the next four years, and four years is too long when the whole world is fast running out of time on climate change.

But when you take all of these into account, the answer to the original question of who do you think won the debate is clear: President Biden.

Pro-climate-change activists in the Republican party are arguing that Biden’s climate-change programme is really too narrow, being very focused on certain areas like solar, wind and electric vehicles (EVs), and does not include, for example, nuclear, hydro and geothermal. They argue that there’s a lot more to climate change than just those things and that Biden’s climate-change policy is a one-size-fits-all policy.

This is a clear misrepresentation by the Republicans because nuclear, hydro and geothermal, as well as ecosystem preservation and sustainable agriculture, are all in the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature policy initiative.

Of course, the Biden administration should make this clear in their information campaign, as well as highlight the reasons why solar, wind and EVs are brought up more often. And that is because they are the quickest and cheapest ways of reducing huge amounts of carbon emissions.

For us in Asia, we have known all along that the Republicans were never really friendly towards addressing climate change. But now we know how bad the situation will be if they regain the White House.

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Mervyn Tang
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