Climate crisis ignored by Republicans as Trump vows to ‘drill, baby, drill’

The freezing temperatures in Iowa – fuelled by global heating – have not dampened Republican enthusiasm for oil and gas

In the wake of an Iowa primary election chilled in a record blast of cold weather – which scientists say may, counterintuitively, have been worsened by global heating – Republican presidential candidates are embracing the fossil fuel industry tighter than ever, with little to say about the growing toll the climate crisis is taking upon Americans.

The remaining contenders for the US presidential nomination – frontrunner Donald Trump, along with Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis – all used the Iowa caucus to promise surging levels of oil and gas drilling if elected, along with the wholesale abolition of Joe Biden’s climate change policies.

Trump, who comfortably won the Iowa poll, said “we are going to drill, baby, drill” once elected, in a Fox News town hall on the eve of the primary. “We have more liquid gold under our feet; energy, oil and gas than any other country in the world,” the multiply indicted former president said. “We have a lot of potential income.”

Trump also called clean energy a “new scam business” and went on a lengthy digression on how energy is important in the making of donuts and hamburgers. The Trump campaign has accused Biden of trying to prevent Americans from buying non-electric cars – no such prohibition exists – and even for causing people’s dishes to be dirty by imposing new efficiency standards for dishwashers.

Haley, meanwhile, has called the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate bill that provides tax credits for renewable energy production and electric car purchases, a “communist manifesto” and used the Iowa election to promise to “roll back all of Biden’s green subsidies because they’re misplaced”. DeSantis, who came second in Iowa, said that on his first day as president he would “take Biden’s Green New Deal, we tear it up and we throw it in the trash can. It is bad for this country.”

Last year was, globally, the hottest ever recorded, and scientists have warned of mounting calamities as the world barrels through agreed temperature limits. Last year, the US suffered a record number of disasters costing at least $1bn in damages, with the climate crisis spurring fiercer wildfires, storms and extreme heat.

Such concerns were largely unvoiced in frigid Iowa, however, apart from by young climate activists who disrupted rallies held by Trump, Haley and DeSantis. On Sunday, a 17-year-old activist from the Sunrise climate group interrupted a Trump speech to shout: “Mr Trump your campaign is funded by fossil fuel millionaires. Do you represent them, or ordinary people like me?”

She was drowned out by boos from Trump supporters, and then scolded from the stage by the former president, who told the activist to “go home to mommy.” He then said the protester was “young and immature”.

The continued championing of fossil fuels, and dismissal of young people’s worries about climate change, shows that the Republican candidates are “determined to drag us into a chaotic world just to make a bit more money”, said Aru Shiney-Ajay, executive director of Sunrise.

“Not a single Republican is addressing root causes of the climate crisis. They’ve been bought out by oil and gas billionaires,” said Shiney-Ajay, who added that young climate activists were also dismayed at Biden, who has overseen a record glut of oil and gas drilling, despite Republican claims he has hindered US energy production.

“The reality is that every presidential candidate, including Joe Biden, is falling so far short of the climate ambition we need, despite there being millions of lives at stake,” she said.

Some Republicans have warned that the party must take climate change seriously if it is to remain viable electorally, with increasing numbers of Americans alarmed about the impacts of global heating. “If conservatives are scared to talk about the climate, then we’re not going to have a seat at the table when decisions are made,” said Buddy Carter, a Republican congressman from Georgia. “We are right on policy, so we need a seat at the table.”

Still, polling has shown that the climate crisis remains of minor importance to Republican voters, compared to issues such as the economy and inflation, with just 13% of them saying it is a top priority in a Pew survey last year. None of the party’s leading presidential candidates have sought to significantly change this dynamic, to the frustration of some climate-conscious conservatives.

“Republican candidates can’t lose sight of the big picture amid the primary season,” said Danielle Butcher Franz, the chief executive of the advocacy arm of the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative climate group.

“Beyond the primary, the next Republican nominee must win over the hearts and minds of young Americans by speaking to the issue they care most about: climate change.”

Butcher Franz said there must be “more productive rhetoric and real policy solutions from Republicans. The race for 2024 is an opportunity to do so that no candidate has fully seized.”

Even if the candidates aren’t talking much about climate change, its effects are still being directly felt as the Republican primary field moves on to New Hampshire. Icily cold temperatures have gripped much of the US – the Iowa caucus was the coldest on record – due to a blast of Arctic-like weather that has triggered power blackouts, halted flights and caused schools to shut in parts of the country.

The Arctic is heating up at four times the rate of the global average, and scientists think this is affecting the jet stream, a river of strong winds that steers weather across the northern hemisphere, and the polar vortex, another current of winds that usually keeps frigid Arctic air over the polar region. Both these systems risk becoming “wavier”, recent research has found, meaning Arctic-like conditions can meander far further south than normal.

The current blast of cold weather is “certainly much more likely given how much the planet is warming” said Judah Cohen, a meteorologist at Verisk Atmospheric and Environmental who has studied the phenomenon. “There is scientific evidence that makes severe winter weather consistent or explainable in a warming world. One does not negate the other.”

Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, said that while it seems counterintuitive, the science was “becoming clear” that extreme cold spells will be a consequence of global heating.

“The irony is pretty rich” that Iowa has experienced such conditions during a Republican presidential primary, Francis added. “Of course, the deniers won’t see it that way, and won’t listen to any science that says otherwise.”

Cover photo: Climate protesters interrupt a Trump rally in Iowa on 14 January. Photograph: Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images