The big loser in last night's GOP debates: Our warming planet

Fittingly for a party that doesn't believe it's happening, climate change was virtually ignored last night

Published August 7, 2015 5:50PM (EDT)

Last night's Republican debates made for entertaining television but pretty thin gruel for those waiting for some nice, wild climate claims to counter. Seth Borenstein was able to take the night off, and Bill McKibben enjoyed a sarcastic slow clap.

Only in the earlier debate for the under-achieving candidates was climate change ever explicitly an issue -- as a line of attack against Lindsey Graham, the one GOP candidate who regularly says the climate change is actually happening and humans are causing it. Here's the exchange between Graham and moderator Bill Hemmer:

HEMMER: Senator Lindsey Graham, you worked with Democrats and President Obama when it came to climate change, something you know is extremely unpopular with conservative Republicans.

How can they trust you based on that record?

GRAHAM: You can trust me to do the following: that when I get on change with Hillary Clinton, we won’t be debating about the science, we’ll be debating about the solutions. In her world, cap- and-trade would dominate, that we will destroy the economy in the name of helping the environment. In my world, we’ll focus on energy independence and a clean environment.

When it comes to fossil fuels, we’re going to find more here and use less. Over time, we’re going to become energy independent. I am tired of sending $300 billion overseas to buy oil from people who hate our guts. The choice between a weak economy and a strong environment is a false choice, that is not the choice I’ll offer America.

A healthy environment, a strong economy and energy independent America — that would be the purpose of my presidency, is break the strangle hold that people enjoy on fossil fuels who hate our guts.

As far as it goes this isn't too bad. Hemmer concedes that climate action is unpopular among "conservative Republicans", implying correctly that not all Republicans swing that way. Graham then explicitly refuses to throw doubt on climate science and to claim that any environmental action will wreck the economy, both things that "conservative Republicans" (and megadonors like the Koch brothers) would want to hear. Unfortunately the remainder of his "solution" involves pulling more fossil fuels out of the ground, just in a slightly different location. Oil imports have been falling for years now. Even Saudi Arabia is broke these days. Perhaps Graham really should debate the science a bit more?

In the main debate, with Donald Trump and Donald Trump's issues sucking all the air out of the room, only Jeb Bush briefly broke the silence (and his gray, affable demeanor) with an unexpected outburst when asked how he'd achieve economic growth.

BUSH: You embrace the energy revolution in our country. This president and Hillary Clinton, who can’t even say she’s for the X.L. pipeline even after she’s left? Give me a break. Of course we’re for it. We should be for these things to create high sustained economic growth. And frankly, fixing our immigration system and turning it into an economic driver is part of this as well. We can do this.

The big takeaway from this is probably that Jeb Bush believes what a lot a Democrats also believe: that Hillary Clinton is not-so-secretly in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and prevaricating about it. Adding to this confusion, earlier in the night Lindsey Graham, making the first mention of Keystone in the debates, believed the opposite.

GRAHAM: I think America is dying to work, you just need to give them a chance. To all the Americans who want a better life, don't vote for Hillary Clinton. You're not going to get it. She's not going to repeal "Obamacare" and replace it. I will. She's not going to build the Keystone Pipeline. I will. She's not going to change Dodd-Frank. I will.

At least Clinton is keeping everyone on their toes! Keystone of course won't create much "sustained economic growth" or help Americans dying to work -- the State Department estimates that it will create 35 permanent jobs after the one or two years required for construction.

Perhaps the most surprising statement of the night came from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in a blink-and-you-missed-it endorsement of Barack Obama's "all of the above" energy policy.

WALKER: I think most of us in America understand that people, not the government creates jobs. And one of the best things we can do is get the government out of the way, repeal Obamacare, put in — reign in all the out of control regulations, put in place an all of the above energy policy, give people the education, the skills that the need to succeed, and lower the tax rate and reform the tax code. That’s what I’ll do as president, just like I did in Wisconsin.

Taking this statement -- and all of these statements -- at face value paints a picture of a Republican field rather surprisingly content with how things are going, if a bit disappointed on some of the details of method. After all, the president's energy plan encompasses expanding fracking, drilling in the Arctic, and reducing foreign oil imports, all fairly successfully. Eric Holthaus at Slate put it bluntly: "On Energy, Republican Candidates Sound a Lot Like Obama." Have the GOP candidates calculated that if they can avoid the actual, specific topic of climate change, they can make the energy debate solely about how well current policies are creating jobs?

As the Republicans debated, forests continued to burn, glaciers continued to melt, the waters continued to rise, and the world continued to move slowly but steadily towards a new global climate treaty. Hardly able to agree on anything else, the candidates -- and the moderators -- managed collectively to keep quiet about it all. They didn't even rise to the bait of the EPA's Clean Power Plan, while scrambling for every other example of government overreach they could imagine, as if even mentioning it might be an admission that such a thing as "emissions" exist. How long will they be able to keep this up? The sooner they crack, the sooner we can begin the national debate that we desperately need. Terrifying though it may seem, perhaps we'd better hope that Donald Trump gaffs this topic to everyone's attention.

By Nassir Isaf

MORE FROM Nassir Isaf