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The Dartmouth
March 2, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Menning: To Maintain Electoral Viability, Republicans Must Correct Course on Climate

The environment is a top issue for Gen Z. Conservatives can earn young votes and pragmatically address climate change with common-sense solutions.

In the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate on Aug. 23, a Gen Z audience member asked candidates how they would calm young peoples’ fears that the GOP doesn’t care about climate change. However, few candidates directly answered the question. While most candidates have acknowledged the reality of climate change, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was the only one to do so onstage.

Conservatives can lead on climate policy, but unless Republicans offer a confident environmental vision, the GOP risks alienating the young voters who could soon be the political kingmakers. Polling from the 2020 and 2022 elections show that climate change has consistently been the top issue for young people, and by the end of the decade, Millennial and Gen Z voters will likely be an electoral majority. Unsurprisingly, President Joe Biden won roughly 60% of votes from people under 30 in 2020 after campaigning heavily on climate action. Republicans shouldn’t assume that young voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Biden will give them a pass on climate. Gen Z and Millennial voters might outnumber Baby Boomers in 2024, and despite some Democrats’ apathy towards Biden as the 2024 Democratic nominee, young people consistently turned out for Democrats in 2020 and 2022.

If Republicans embrace a common sense, optimistic climate platform, they can give young people an alternative to Biden on this key issue. To do so, Republicans must first acknowledge climate change and then make the credible case that conservative policies can best address this issue. 

Despite Haley’s lone climate leadership in the first debate, many other Republican candidates have a foundation on which to build a climate platform. For instance, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis boasts a commendable record in Everglades conservation, while South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has co-sponsored bipartisan carbon market and coastal restoration legislation. Other candidates, such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recognized human-caused climate change in 2012 and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum boldly predicted that his state will be carbon neutral by 2030, primarily through carbon management technology. Even Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who called the “climate change agenda” a hoax during the Republican primary debate, has touted the virtues of clean nuclear energy. 

If candidates embrace climate policy, what would a conservative vision look like? To begin, candidates can champion policies that would  cut red tape — or eliminate certain unnecessary government regulations — around clean energy, penalize overseas emissions and empower local communities to conserve land and wildlife. 

Republican presidential candidates should vocally champion energy-permitting reform as a mechanism to reduce emissions quickly and decrease energy prices. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act invested heavily in clean energy infrastructure, but environmental regulations are, ironically, a major obstacle to actually building clean energy projects. Environmental impact statements take an average of four years to complete and can sometimes span decades. To reduce emissions and increase energy independence, time is precious. Cutting red tape around energy projects will expedite the development of American clean energy. 

Republicans should also embrace a global view of climate change by advocating for a foreign pollution fee, like that proposed by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. With China producing more than double the annual emissions of the U.S., serious climate policy must tackle international emissions. By taxing imports based on carbon intensity, a foreign pollution fee would incentivize other countries to reduce emissions and encourage firms to produce goods more cleanly in the U.S. 

Finally, Republicans should be the voice for rural American conservationists. By supporting reforms to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, local natural resource management and voluntary conservation agreements, the longtime stewards of American natural areas can leverage the land to fight climate change and protect wildlife. Nearly 70% of rural voters cast Republican ballots in 2022 — by highlighting and empowering rural communities’ investment in the environment, conservatives can bring a critical constituency to the climate table.

Conservative principles are needed to address climate change, and conservatives need the youth buy-in that climate leadership would bring. These policies are just the start for climate ideas. To fully develop policy platforms, Republican leadership should engage with conservative environmental groups like the American Conservation Coalition, which was the headline sponsor for the official afterparty of the first debate, and the 76-member congressional Conservative Climate Caucus.

New Hampshire has the opportunity to support a Republican candidate that will mobilize all voices for effective climate action, and New Hampshire voters already have a record of doing so. By recognizing human-caused climate change and embracing market-driven clean energy solutions, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, has been a leader in the GOP climate discussion. With the right leadership from the primary field, Granite Staters can choose a similarly pragmatic Republican leader to champion real climate solutions. It’s up to the candidates to claim the conservative climate mantle.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.