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How climate change is, or isn’t, a factor for young Republicans ahead of the NH primary

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and American Conservation Coalition president Chris Barnard talk about climate change at a December 2023 campaign event in Manchester, N.H.
Mara Hoplamazian
/
NHPR
Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and American Conservation Coalition president Chris Barnard talk about climate change at December 2023 event in Manchester.

On a warm December night, in a backroom of a Manchester brewery crowded with prospective voters, Chris Barnard was trying to get presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy on the record about his views on climate change.

“We know that this is a top three issue for young people,” said Barnard, who's the president of the American Conservation Coalition, an advocacy group focused on conservative approaches to taking action on climate change. “How do you feel, like, in a general election you could win, when this is an issue that has swung independent and young voters for Democrats because Republicans have had a lack of an ambitious and enticing agenda for the next generation?”

“I believe in something we call persuasion,” Ramaswamy replied.

The presidential candidate played up the cost of combating climate change, and said he’d try to convince young people that it’s not important to stop it, but instead, figure out how to live in a warmer world.

“We'll always face changing circumstances. But what we do as human beings is: we innovate, we adapt, we master,” he said.

Throughout the night, many of Ramaswamy’s statements on climate were misleading, though his talking points were peppered with issues that are genuinely thorny for those making climate policy.

And his approach — not outright denying that the climate is changing, but minimizing the importance of acting to address it — drew applause from the crowd. After the event, many voters said the environmental conversation wasn’t what drew them to the event; for some, in fact, they’d have preferred to hear less.

This is the dynamic the American Conservation Coalition is working against. After years of disinformation shaping the conservative conversation on climate change, they’re hoping to get Republican candidates not only to talk about the issue, but present plans for it.

And New Hampshire has become a stage for the group’s 501(c)(4) arm to inject questions about how conservative candidates would handle climate change into the circuit of largely climate-free stump speeches and coffee chats saturating New Hampshire ahead of the first-in-the-nation Republican primary.

The American Conservation Coalition’s plan to address climate change includes a variety of policy recommendations: support for nuclear power, building solar panels in the U.S., and expanding gas development and exports.

Brian Martinez, who leads the Northeast division for the organization, says nationally, conservative voters are paying attention to candidates' approaches to climate change. Especially younger voters.

“Young people overwhelmingly believe that climate change is real because we're seeing it,” he said. “I grew up in Wisconsin. I can't tell you the last time I had a white Christmas.”

Martinez cited a 2023 poll from the Cres Forum, a non-profit focused on conservative climate solutions, which found more than 80% of Republicans under the age of 44 believe climate change is a threat.

“Candidates don't need to be 'the climate candidate,' but they need to realize that if they're going to win young people, they're going to need to come to the table on climate. And if they don't do that, then they're going to lose almost half of the voting block for 2024,” he said.

But while younger people are looking to prioritize climate action — an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 59% of young people said climate change should take priority over the economy — the GOP is moving in a different direction. The same poll found that in 2023, an increasing number of Republicans are turning away from climate action. Seventy-three percent said the economy should be prioritized at the risk of ignoring climate change, up 13 points from 2018.

Though Donald Trump, the front-runner in the Republican primary race, continues to deny basic facts around climate change, and other candidates have avoided questions or muddied the reality of the challenge, Martinez says he’s optimistic about Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley as options for younger Republicans who care about climate change.

“Ambassador Haley has gone on the record saying climate change is real and wants to do something about it,” he said. “And Gov. DeSantis has a really good conservation legacy to back him up. I really hope that he would just talk about it more.”

Haley did acknowledge the reality of climate change in the first Republican presidential debate, and a 2020 video from her advocacy group states: “man-made climate change is real.”

Meanwhile, much of her campaign rhetoric on energy has centered around expanding fossil fuel production, the main cause of human-driven climate change.

“We will speed up the permitting. We will make sure our pipelines are moving. We will do the Keystone pipeline. We'll export as much liquefied natural gas as we can,” she said during a campaign event in Rye earlier this month.

DeSantis has also talked up his support of fossil fuels. He’s been more unclear on his views on climate science, though he told reporters in Iowa he believes human activity is one of a variety of factors driving climate change.

He has implemented resilience policies in Florida to manage flooding and sea level rise. But he’s been largely silent on addressing climate change in his stump speeches in New Hampshire.

On his campaign website, he says he would end commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and pull out of other climate agreements, like the Paris climate accord. (Haley supported Trump’s exit of that climate agreement in 2017.)

The lack of focus on climate change from candidates isn’t an issue for many voters. And in some ways, it’s part of the appeal for Issac Rezendes, who attended Ramaswamy’s talk with the American Conservation Coalition.

“I don’t like the idea of us playing God, coming up with all of these regulations, expecting that intentional human action somehow is going to lead to a better result” on the climate, he said.

Rezendes said he’s mostly focused on national security and the economy.

Jack Marino, a first-year student at Dartmouth College who is registered as a Republican in New Hampshire, said climate change is his No. 4 issue, after the economy and candidates’ policies on immigration and China. But if candidates don’t have a baseline seriousness about climate, he said, they’ll be off his list.

Marino is part of the Dartmouth Conservatives group and his school’s chapter of the American Conservation Coalition. He says among his peers, people are hungry for Republican leadership on climate.

“I would say that denying climate change, especially for young conservatives, causes serious problems,” he said. “Embracing the climate crisis, finding these pragmatic solutions, appeals to young conservatives, especially in New Hampshire.”

At a recent Dartmouth Conservatives meeting, Marino says, when the group voted on whether climate change was a real issue and required action, everyone in the room voted yes.

Despite a swell of interest from young people, climate change didn’t show up in the top three issues for registered Republicans in the state, according to a November poll from the University of New Hampshire.

For many voters, economic issues are crowding out their ability to talk about anything else. Claire Murphy, 24, is a DeSantis supporter who attended a recent rally of his with her mother.

“What we need right now is we need a more stable living,” she said. “I can't even move out on my own right now because the apartment rent is so high and everything is so high.”

Murphy said she thinks it’s important for young people to be aware of environmental issues. But she’s not voting on them.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.