Republican activist says party ‘deserves to lose’ if it fails to address climate crisis
Benji Backer, executive chairman of conservative climate group, calls question on crisis in debate ‘historic’ but laments answers.
Republicans “deserve to lose” electorally if they can’t show they care about the climate crisis, according to the head of a conservative climate organization that put forward a rare question on the issue to GOP candidates in Wednesday’s televised debate.
The Republican presidential hopefuls, minus Donald Trump, were asked at the Fox News debate what they would do to improve the party’s standing on climate policy by Alexander Diaz, a young conservative who is part of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), a youth conservative group that pushes for action on the climate crisis.
Asked by the moderators for a show of hands over whether climate change is real, none of the candidates did so, with one, Vivek Ramaswamy, the far-right businessman, declaring that the “climate agenda is a hoax”. Two other candidates, Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, accepted the well-established scientific reality of global heating but looked to shift the blame to other major carbon polluters, such as China, and even, in Scott’s case, to Africa, which is responsible for about 3% of the world’s emissions.
Benji Backer, founder and executive chairman of ACC, said the question on climate was “historic” and highlighted the desire among young Republicans for their leaders to take the threat of global heating seriously.
“That we didn’t get an immediate hand raise speaks to how much work we have left to do; young people will never vote for a candidate that doesn’t believe in climate change,” he said after the debate. “We’re not going away, we are normalizing this as part of the Republican conversation. Republicans deserve to lose if they are climate deniers and don’t have a plan.”
Backer said that Ramaswamy “has always been wrong on this issue” and that Haley’s answer was a “winning one” for young people. He noted how Ramaswamy, who he said an ACC colleague confronted about his remarks after the debate, was booed by the audience for his dismissal of climate science.
“Republicans are environmentalists, we are the original conservationists,” Backer told a debate after-party attended by campaign staffers, some Republican members of Congress and Ramaswamy, a video shared with the Guardian shows. “And by sitting on the sidelines and letting the Democrats take this issue and run with it over the last few decades we’ve not only lost an entire generation of young voters we’ve also ceded the ground to really, really bad policy that is impacting our day-to-day lives in so many ways.”
Polling shows there is growing concern among all Americans over the impacts of the climate crisis, which have been on vivid display this summer, with devastating fires in Hawaii, floods in California and Vermont and a series of punishing heatwaves that have broken temperature records across the US.
There remains a partisan divide, however, with far more Democrats considering climate a priority than Republicans. Among GOP voters, younger people are more likely to see the climate crisis as a threat that requires action than the party’s older voters, polls suggest.
Few Republican leaders have backed strong climate action in recent years, however, with Trump, the dominant force in the party, calling the climate crisis a “hoax” and “bullshit”. During Trump’s presidency, the US withdrew from the Paris climate agreement and scrapped various regulations designed to reduce carbon pollution. Republicans in Congress have since attempted to demolish key aspects of Joe Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which provides enormous incentives to proliferate renewable energy and electric vehicles.
The specter of Trump, the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination despite his various criminal indictments, still haunts Republicans when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis, according to Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman who now advocates for conservative action on climate.
“At the debate last night the future called to the present and the present seized up in fear – the candidates couldn’t answer the future’s call because they are in fear of a certain constituency in the party and the person who leads that,” Inglis said.
“It’s an abysmal failure of vision. The smart money is moving towards innovation to deal with climate change. But that guy [Trump] is an angel of death. He can’t get you elected, but he can kill you in the primary.”
Environmental groups were scathing of the Republican candidate’s responses. “Republicans are stuck between a hoax and a hard place,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power. “Their Maga base demands a rigid stance against the obvious reality of climate change, which requires that they ignore what we’re all experiencing – extreme weather that disrupts lives and destroys communities week in and week out.”
Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images - A member of the Atlanta Young Republicans attends a watch party of the first Republican presidential debate at a bar in Atlanta, Georgia.