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Climate change isn't a top motivator in elections. But it could impact key races

Environmental activists march during the Global Climate Strike in downtown Chicago on Sept. 15, 2023. Local groups across the United States are gathering to call for an end to the era of fossil fuels.
Kamil Krzaczynski
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AFP via Getty Images
Environmental activists march during the Global Climate Strike in downtown Chicago on Sept. 15, 2023. Local groups across the United States are gathering to call for an end to the era of fossil fuels.

This piece originally appeared in the NPR Politics newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here for early access and for more coverage of the biggest issues at play in 2024.

The climate is changing. That is something all of the current presidential candidates can agree on.

But that's about as far as the similarities go.

And in some key swing states and congressional races, the chasm between Republicans and Democrats on the issue could be enough to tip the scales come November 2024.

In the first GOP primary debate on Aug. 23, moderators struggled to get clear answers to the question "Do you believe human behavior is causing climate change?"

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy has largely dismissed policies to address climate change altogether, calling the "climate change agenda" a "hoax." Other candidates believe the country should be taking action, but the issue takes a backseat to the economy and immigration.

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activities, primarily burning fossil fuels. China currently produces the highest level of carbon emissions in the world, followed by the United States and India. But the U.S. is by far the largest historical contributor to climate change, and has significantly higher emissions per capita.

When Republicans do push for climate action, they say the focus should be pressuring China and India to clean up their acts. Most GOP platforms also call for increasing domestic energy production by expanding nuclear power and natural gas – while continuing to rely on fossil fuels. But they oppose the Biden-era regulations and subsidies to incentivize clean energy production and electric vehicle manufacturing.

Biden and his supporters have hit the campaign trail touting those investments made in the Inflation Reduction Act – which, despite its name, is actually a massive climate law that aims to encourage a transition to clean energy. Still, some Democratic-leaning voters say Biden has not done enough to curb emissions.

By and large, climate is not a driving force at the macro level of American elections. But it's an issue that is top of mind for young voters across party affiliations. People of color, who are often most affected by the impacts of climate change, and women also consistently say the issue should be a priority.

Whether or not those demographics turn out could make the difference in states where wins happen on the margins.

Where the candidates stand

Alyson Hurt / NPR
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NPR

For more than a decade, the GOP has largely rejected the science around climate change or resisted action to curb its effects. Some climate-minded Republicans see any acknowledgement of the issue from their presidential candidates as a sign of progress for the party.

Read more about what the candidates think about climate change, and what they want to do about it,here.

By the numbers

80% of Democrats say addressing climate change should be given priority even at the risk of slowing the economy.

Meanwhile, 72% of Republicans say the economy should be given priority, even at the risk of ignoring climate change, according to an August NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Essential reading

Essential listening

  • Climate-minded voters have mixed feelings on Biden's record (NPR Politics Podcast)
  • President Biden: Climate champion or fossil fuel friend? (The Indicator from Planet Money)
  • Three letters caused quite a stir among Republican lawmakers this summer: the fight over ESG (NPR Politics Podcast)
  • The Biden administration has promised to take climate seriously, but is all of this happening a little too late? (Consider This)

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.
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