Republicans Got One Question About Climate Change At The Debate, And Totally Screwed It Up

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/AP Photo

After nearly three hours, CNN’s Republican presidential debate came to a close on Wednesday night with only one mention of human-caused climate change. The answers went on for about three minutes before debate moderator Jake Tapper abruptly changed the topic to vaccines.

The question, though, was framed in an interesting way: Ronald Reagan’s own secretary of state, George Shultz, has advocated for some kind of action on climate change, just as an “insurance policy.” Tapper asked, why not follow Reagan’s example, and take out an insurance policy to respond to what scientists overwhelmingly believe will be devastating impacts of climate change?

Three candidates responded: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. All three argued that nothing should be done by the American government to combat the problem, and Christie even said that he “respectfully disagrees” with Reagan’s secretary of state (gasp!). But all three also backed up their argument using a factually murky claim: that government efforts to combat climate change won’t do anything to solve the problem.

Rubio said that the EPA’s regulations on carbon emissions from coal plants “will do absolutely nothing to change our climate.” Christie said he agreed, that regulations “will not do a thing to lower the rise of the sea … [or] solve the drought here in California.” Walker was more measured, saying “the Obama administration has said will have marginal impact on climate change.”

Republicans have loved this argument lately, seemingly because it’s moderate — it falls between denying climate change is happening, and admitting that anything should be done about the problem. The idea is that regulations to limit carbon emissions won’t help solve climate change on their own, but they will cost coal jobs and raise Americans’ electricity bills. So why do it?

The argument fails for a few reasons. As Vox’s David Roberts points out, it’s just untrue — carbon regulations will make a difference in fighting climate change, albeit a small one. In addition, unilaterally solving global warming was never the intention of carbon regulations. The intention was to do our part, thereby motivating other countries to do theirs. And our part is especially important — Rubio tried to deflect blame to China during the debate, saying they are the number one emitter of carbon in the world. But the U.S. has contributed more to global warming than any other country — even China.

But the candidates on tonight’s debate stage did not acknowledge this, nor did they acknowledge the devastating personal and economic effects that climate change is expected to have, and is already having. Nor did they mention the numerous studies that have shown that the EPA’s climate regulations will also have net economic benefits, due to jobs created in the renewable energy and technology industries and a healthier population.

Roberts lays it out like this: “What’s the alternative? Unchecked climate change will lead to immense suffering, concentrated in but not confined to the world’s poorer countries. Unless we’re willing to accept that suffering — and you never quite hear Republicans own up to that — we have to do our part.”