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How the 2016 Presidential Candidates View Climate Change

Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Climate change is one of the most critical issues facing the United States and the world. President Barack Obama has made it a top priority of his second term and a cornerstone of his legacy. He has passed some of the most sweeping environmental regulations of any president and laid the groundwork for a global climate change agreement in Paris. His decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline secured his reputation as an environmentalist. Yet it will fall to Obama’s successor to determine whether we continue to move forward with environmentally friendly policies. Here’s where the current presidential candidates stand on climate change.


Hillary Clinton

Clinton hasn’t always been considered green on key issues—while secretary of state, for example, she supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. During the campaign, however, she has called climate change an “urgent challenge,” come out against the TPP and arctic drilling, and framed herself as Obama’s natural successor on the environment, vowing to build on his Clean Power Plan.

In July, she unveiled an environmental plan that promises to install more than half a billion solar panels across the country by the end of her first term and boost the amount of energy that comes from renewables from 13 percent to 33 percent by 2027. In November, she released a $30 billion plan to help revitalize communities in coal country as the economy transitions away from fossil fuels. And her campaign has signalled that the public should expect additional environmental announcements in the coming months.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders’s climate record stretches far back into his time in the Senate. Bill McKibben, an activist and founder of the environmental group, called Sanders “the most consistent and proactive voice in the entire Keystone fight.” Sanders also aggressively opposed the TPP from the beginning. Instead of aligning behind Obama, Sanders told The Washington Post that the Democratic nominee should go much farther than the current president has on climate change. That, in Sanders’s view, would mean taxing carbon, investing massively in solar, wind, and geothermal energy, expanding public transit, and winterizing all homes.

In the first democratic debate, Sanders cited climate change as the biggest national security threat, and in the second debate he doubled down on that position, calling it “a major crisis.” “The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable,” he said.

In November, Sanders also co-sponsored the Keep it in the Ground Act, designed to ban drilling leases on public lands throughout the country and in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans.

Martin O’Malley

O’Malley has stated that transitioning to clean energy will be his number-one priority on his first day in office. His comprehensive climate platform outlines ambitious goals, like using 100 percent clean energy by 2050, and he would use his executive authority to create a Clean Energy Job Corps to partner with communities on projects like retrofitting buildings.


Jeb Bush

Bush isn’t a full-out climate denier, unlike many of his Republican colleagues. The Florida politician admits that human activity does contribute to changes in climate, but insists being “alarmist about it” is not the way to handle this change.

Despite being a converted Catholic of 20 years, he denies Pope Francis’s call to address climate on moral grounds, instead saying that religion should not get involved in politics. Bush has also adamantly rejected Obama’s Clean Power Plan, saying that “it does virtually nothing to address the risk of climate change.” Instead, his energy plan focuses on drilling and nixing regulations on crude oil and natural gas exports. Increased emissions from these policies won’t be a problem, he asserts, because he believes there will be “a person in a garage somewhere that’s going to come up with a disruptive technology that’s going to solve these problems.”

Ben Carson

On the campaign trail, Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has mocked environmental science as beyond the scope of man’s understanding or control. “Gravity, where did it come from?” he asked a town hall audience earlier this year, rhetorically. Regarding climate change, Carson agrees that it’s happening but dismisses it as a problem. “There’s always going to be cooling or warming going on,” he told supporters. “There is no reason to make it into a political issue.”

Chris Christie

A governor who has seen his state impacted by a massive storm, Christie has said climate change is real and humans contribute to it, although he flip-flopped in refusing to admit it was connected with Hurricane Sandy.

Since joining the 2016 presidential race, he has become quieter about the matter, until a question in the second Republican debate about approaching climate change the Reagan way: incorporating environmental policies as “insurance.” “We don’t need this massive government intervention to deal with the problem,” Christie said. “Look at New Jersey, we’ve already reached our clean air goals for 2020,” he continued, citing the state’s advances in solar energy. New Jersey is in the top ten of solar-producing states.

Ted Cruz

Cruz has gotten creative in rejecting climate science as partisan agenda. “Climate change is not science, it’s religion,” he told Glenn Beck in October, disputing the climate change “denier” label. The proper term, Cruz argued, would be “skeptic,” since good scientists are skeptical—ignoring the fact that, on climate change, scientists overwhelmingly agree that it is a real and pressing problem. In addition, Cruz’s American Energy Renaissance Act would open federal lands to oil and gas exploration and allow exports while leaving fracking regulation to states. The act would also prevent the EPA from regulating emissions.

Carly Fiorina

In an interview with Katie Couric, Fiorina said she understands that scientists tell us climate change is manmade, but she doesn’t think protecting the Earth should be a top priority. “A single nation acting alone can make no difference at all,” she said, repeating a common GOP talking point. “I think the answer to this problem is innovation, not regulation.” As an example, she suggested pursuing clean coal technology. “We have to focus on how to make coal cleaner,” she told Couric. “I think it’s an issue, and I think we ought to be be focusing time, energy, and resources on innovations that will help address this issue,” Fiorina told Couric. “But I think we need to keep it in perspective.”

In a thorough critique of Fiorina’s position,’s David Roberts pointed out that the United States can take action on its own to bring temperatures down somewhat, and it can also apply pressure to countries around the world to do the same.

Jim Gilmore

“Climate change is a reality,” Gilmore states on his campaign web site. But “we should not agree to any treaties, Congress should not enact any laws, and the administration should not issue any regulations that strangle our economy in pursuit of an ephemeral goal of reducing carbon emissions.” Though he did not support the Kyoto Protocol, he has not spoken out against Obama’s Clean Power Plan, according the League of Conservation Voters.

Lindsey Graham

Graham also believes in climate change and in the past has advocated for cap-and-trade and curbing emissions. His campaign web site pushes energy independence, which to Graham means oil and gas coming from inside America’s borders. “We need to ensure we can gain access to vast, untapped onshore and offshore sources of oil and natural gas, including through hydraulic fracturing in a safe and affordable way,” his web site states. Even so, at campaign stops the candidate has challenged his peers to recognize climate change and address it in a business-friendly way.

“I’ve talked to the climatologists of the world and 90 percent of them are telling me that greenhouse gas effect is real,” Graham said in the third GOP undercard debate. “I just want a solution that would be good for the economy, that doesn’t destroy it.”

Mike Huckabee

In playing down the impacts of climate change, Huckabee crafted one of the most offensive soundbites among GOP candidates. “I believe most of us would think that a beheading is a far greater threat than a sunburn,” he told supporters in January, referencing the threat from groups like ISIS and displaying a complete misunderstanding of climate change’s effects on the planet and humans. In his 2007 presidential campaign, Huckabee did say that climate change was real, and he also supported cap-and-trade legislation. He now says he never supported it.

John Kasich

Kasich strays farther from the staunch party line on climate change than most Republicans. He has said that climate change is a problem and protecting the Earth is important, but in 2012 he said he’s “not lying awake at night worrying,” especially when climate policies could come at the cost of American jobs.

“We’re not here to worship the environment but we are here to manage it,” he said on Meet the Press in August. “Of course we have to be sensitive to [climate change] but we don’t want to destroy people’s jobs based on some theory that’s not proven.”

Much like other contenders, Kasich would reject Obama’s regulations and focus on drilling for fossil fuels on “non-sensitive” public lands.

George Pataki

Pataki is another of the GOP’s quiet supporters of the environment. The former governor has worked as an environmental consultant and served as co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force on Climate Change. In 2008, that group published a long report detailing the importance of addressing climate change.

As a candidate, Pataki brought up climate in the first undercard debate. But in an interview with Grist, he explained that he supports innovative solutions, not government regulations. “Our greenhouse gas or CO2 emissions [in the U.S.] are lower today than they were in 1995. That is an extraordinary accomplishment. And it’s not because of government regulation, it’s because of American innovation through fracking, where we’ve been able to replace so many coal plants with natural gas plants,” he told the environmental news site.  

Rand Paul

In the past, Paul has admitted the climate is changing, even conceding in a 2015 “Sense of Congress” amendment vote that climate change is real and manmade. In the fourth Republican debate, however, he downplayed his position and talked of repealing Obama’s Clean Power Plan. “We’ve had times when the temperature’s been warmer. We’ve had times when the temperature’s been colder. We’ve had times when carbon in the atmosphere has been higher,” Paul said, in a common GOP refrain. “So I think we need to look before we leap.”

He has also said EPA efforts to control carbon pollution are illegal.

Marco Rubio

Rubio’s energy plan focuses on drilling and fracking, extracting power from the ground as opposed to renewables. He does admit the climate is changing, but says there is no consensus on the “sensitivity of the climate.”

In an April Face the Nation appearance, he used a familiar conservative line when he said, “There’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing. The question is what percentage of that is due to human activity.” In the second Republican debate, he argued against enacting policies to protect the climate. “We’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do,” Rubio said. “Here’s what I’m skeptical of: I’m skeptical of the decisions the left wants. … They will not do a thing to lower the rise of the sea, they will not do a thing to cure the drought here in California.”

During his time in the Florida legislature, however, Rubio was not always so unkind to environmental policies. In 2007 he named clean energy a priority. “Global warming, dependence on foreign sources of fuel, and capitalism have come together to create opportunities for us that were unimaginable just a few short years ago,” he said. Over time, though, he’s become increasingly resistant to recognizing the human impact on climate change or the influence one country can have, and now he’s vying for the title of the most dangerous candidate on climate change.

Rick Santorum

Santorum ranks among the most insistent climate change deniers in the GOP field. He has used a bevy of classic Republican tools to chip away at arguments on climate change: saying the U.S. cannot stave off environmental disaster alone, misrepresenting scientific studies, and telling the Pope to back off the topic (Santorum is Catholic).

In one particularly egregious moment, Santorum explained on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher that a study found that 57 percent of scientists do not agree “that CO2 is the knob that’s turning the climate.” “I don’t know what ass you’re pulling that out of,” Maher responded to this bogus claim.

Donald Trump

Trump’s views on climate change broadly mirror those of his fellow Republican candidates. “I believe there’s weather,” Trump told Hugh Hewitt in September. “I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again. And it changes depending on years and centuries, but I am not a believer, and we have much bigger problems.”

“I don’t believe in climate change,” Trump said flatly, in an interview with CNN in September. And the next month, as a cold front swept through the Northeast, he tweeted that “we could use a big fat dose of global warming!”

Abroad, he’s fought a wind development near a golf resort he owns in Scotland, and, like most Republicans, vehemently opposed federal policies supporting wind energy in the U.S., tweeting about turbines over 100 times according to The Washington Post. That is until a November campaign stop in Iowa where he reversed his position and said he was “fine with it” and it’s “amazing” how it’s possible to make energy from wind.