Credit: Teddy YoshidaThe recent release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector by 32 percent relative to 2005 levels has politicians eager to express their support or scorn for the most sweeping federal plan ever to tackle climate-change-causing greenhouse gases from the power sector. But, was climate change action always such a partisan issue?

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush (R) signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and stated, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways.” In 2001, his son President George W. Bush (R) created the Climate Change Research Initiative, and claimed, “Climate change, with its potential to impact every corner of the world, is an issue that must be addressed.” And in 2007, Republican presidential candidate John McCain remarked in a campaign video, “I believe climate change is real. I think it’s devastating.” Since these statements, the scientific consensus on manmade climate change has only increased: today, 99.9 percent of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is occurring. The political consensus, however, has frayed, with the conversation on climate change beginning to shift during the 2012 election. While former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) had previously stated, “I think the risks of climate change are real . . . And I think human activity is contributing to it,” he began to question climate science during his presidential candidacy, arguing, “we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.”

In the years since, bipartisan support for climate change action has mostly evaporated, and there now exists a political divide on the topic, despite a majority of both Republican and Democratic voters stating that they would like to see the government act on climate change. While it used to be easy to acknowledge the threat of climate change on both sides of the aisle, once mitigation policies were implemented that increased regulation, cost money, and began to challenge conventional energy production in America, the need for action became much more controversial.

Despite this political controversy, the overwhelming mass of scientific evidence indicates that human-caused climate change is real and modern society will face ever-increasing harm if it goes unaddressed. At the same time, the United States has historically been the largest emitter of CO2, and many argue that the United States, therefore, has a great responsibility to act on climate and set the stage for coordinated international climate mitigation.

As the 2016 election quickly approaches, it is critical to understand each candidate’s position on climate change, and how that position has—in some cases—evolved over time, as the politics of climate change have evolved. The table below, which is based on a table created by National Public Radio, summarizes the climate change positions of the main candidates running for President (these are candidates who have been included in at least 5 national polls).

Party Select 2016 presidential candidates Has acknowledged climate change is real Has acknowledged climate change is caused by man Has called for climate action Has pledged to take climate action if elected Has offered specific proposals to reduce carbon emissions
D Hillary Clinton Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
D Martin O'Malley Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
I Bernie Sanders Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
R Bobby Jindal Yes Yes, to a limited extent Yes Yes, but limited Yes, but limited
R Lindsey Graham Yes Yes Yes Yes No
D Lincoln Chafee Yes Yes Yes No No
R John Kasich Yes Yes Yes No No
R George Pataki Yes Yes Yes No No
D Jim Webb Yes Yes Yes No No
R Jeb Bush Yes Yes, to a limited extent Yes No No
R Chris Christie Yes Yes, to a limited extent Yes No No
R Jim Gilmore Yes Yes, to a limited extent Yes No No
R Carly Fiorina Yes Yes No No No
R Rand Paul Yes No No No No
R Marco Rubio Yes No No No No
R Scott Walker Unclear Unclear No No No
R Ted Cruz Unclear No No No No
R Ben Carson No No No No No
R Mike Huckabee No No No No No
R Rick Perry No No No No No
R Rick Santorum No No No No No
R Donald Trump No No No No No
This table does not include all declared presidential candidates, only those who are nationally known (there are, as of August 26, five nationally-known candidates for the Democratic nomination and 17 nationally-known candidates for the Republican nomination).

Source: "Where Presidential Candidates Stand On Climate Change," National Public Radio.


A further examination of the climate actions and statements of nine of the above candidates shows that, in general, presidential candidates can be grouped into three main climate change categories: champions, fence sitters, and deniers.



Champions are candidates who not only acknowledge climate change, but have also committed to take action against it should they be elected President. Within this category fits former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-NC), former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D), and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT)—in alphabetical order. Each of these candidates has a political career lasting at least 15 years, during which they’ve consistently shown concern over climate change.


Hillary Clinton (D)

During her time in the Senate, Clinton worked to establish an energy efficiency and renewable energy worker training program, introduced the Strategic Energy Fund Act of 2007 to fight tax breaks for oil companies and increase investment in clean energy, and cosponsored legislation for "cap and trade" of greenhouse gas emissions. In her 2008 bid for president, Clinton announced she would seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, implement cap and trade policies, and increase renewable energy to 25 percent of the nation’s energy portfolio by 2025. As Secretary of State, she appointed the first-ever State Department special envoy on climate change. In recent speeches she has stated, “The science of climate change is unforgiving, no matter what the deniers may say. Sea levels are rising; ice caps are melting; storms, droughts and wildfires are wreaking havoc.” Nevertheless, Clinton has consistently supported the continued use of an “all of the above” energy strategy. As a Senator she voted for the expansion of offshore drilling, and as Secretary of State she advocated for the expansion of fracking across the globe. On the campaign trail, Clinton has recently announced two clean energy goals: installing 500 million solar panels by the end of her first term, and powering every U.S. home with renewable energy by the year 2027.


Lindsey Graham (R)

Graham has stated that he acknowledges human-caused climate change, pledging that “If I’m president of the United States, we’re going to address climate change, CO2 emissions in a business-friendly way.” This pledge is backed up by previous actions taken by Graham to fight climate change. In 2009, Graham joined forces with Democrat John Kerry and Independent Joe Lieberman to draft legislation for a cap-and-trade climate policy. In support of that policy he co-authored a New York Times op-ed with Kerry stating that, “we agree that climate change is real and threatens our economy and national security. That is why we are advocating aggressive reductions in our emissions of the carbon gases that cause climate change.” Nevertheless, Graham’s climate convictions have not always matched his voting record, as he has consistently voted to suppress clean energy investments, and continues to support the “all of the above” energy strategy.


Martin O’Malley (D)

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has also been strong on climate throughout his career, but has also taken positions that have drawn the ire of climate activists. As Maryland’s Governor, O’Malley set a goal to reduce Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 2006 levels by the year 2020; vetoed legislation that would delay offshore wind development in Maryland; commissioned an in-depth assessment of the dangers of fracking; and announced a comprehensive Climate Action Plan outlining over 150 different strategies to reduce Maryland’s carbon emissions and increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 25% percent by 2020. Despite these actions, O’Malley clashed with environmentalists at the end of his second term by approving fracking in Maryland, and remaining silent on the proposed construction of a liquefied natural gas export facility. As a presidential candidate, O’Malley recently published an op-ed in USA Today calling for a complete end to the use of fossil fuels by 2050.


Bernie Sanders (I)

Sanders has maintained strong stances on climate change throughout his political career. Throughout his 25 years in Congress, Sanders has consistently voted in support of clean and renewable energy, energy efficiency, and voted against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. In the Senate, he introduced the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act of 2007 to fund the research and development of carbon sequestration technologies, set emission and renewable fuel standards for vehicles and gasoline by 2016, establish efficiency and renewable portfolio standards across the country, and require periodic scientific evaluations to determine if U.S. emissions targets are sufficient. In 2011, he introduced the 10 Million Solar Roofs Act of 2011 to establish a goal of powering 10 million homes and businesses with solar energy by 2020, by putting in place various methods to make solar more cost competitive and affordable.


Fence Sitters

Fence sitters are candidates who are sending mixed signals. Within this category sits former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R). Bush has vacillated between climate denier and champion; Christie has remained consistent in his recognition of climate change, but his political actions have not reflected his statements on climate.


Jeb Bush (R)

Bush served as the Governor of Florida for two terms. During his tenure, climate change mitigation was not his administration’s top priority. Early in his first term, scientists called on Bush to create a Climate Action Plan for the state, but his office denied the request. Yet, as Bush’s second term came to a close, he demonstrated some concern over climate change as he asked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to prepare a white paper on the impacts of carbon pollution. The resulting paper was clear and emphatic about the causes and effects of climate change, and recommended that the Florida State government implement a carbon pricing system. But, in a 2009 interview following the conclusion of his second term, Bush declared, “I’m a skeptic. I’m not a scientist . . . It may be only partially man-made. It may not be warming.” In 2014, Bush continued his transition from climate moderate to climate denier, stating that the science is still unsettled, and anyone who argued otherwise was “really arrogant.” Most recently, on the campaign trail, Bush has stated, “The climate is changing; I don’t think anybody can argue it’s not. Human activity has contributed to it,” but he has remained firm in his unwillingness to address the issue through government action.


Chris Christie (R)

Christie has always acknowledged that manmade climate change is a reality, but his actions on climate during his tenure as New Jersey Governor have not been very supportive of mitigation efforts. In 2009, Christie campaigned in support of clean energy, touting the economic and environmental benefits of wind and solar. In 2010, he signed the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act into law, providing tax credits to companies willing to develop offshore wind on New Jersey’s coast, and in 2011 he banned the development of new coal plants in New Jersey. Ironically, on the same day he banned coal plants, Christie also removed New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a 10-state market-based cap and trade program aimed at reducing carbon emissions, calling it a “useless plan.” Since then, he has twice vetoed bipartisan state legislation attempting to rejoin RGGI, reduced the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard from 30 percent to 22.5 percent by 2021, and his administration has been an impediment to the development of offshore wind development in the state. Despite these actions, Christie commented this May, “I think global warming is real . . . I do think human activity contributes to it. There’s no use in denying global warming exists. The question is what we do to deal with it.”



The last category of candidates encompasses those who deny the evidence of human-caused climate change. Within this category fit Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Cruz and Paul are both first-term senators who began their political careers as climate change partisanship intensified, and they have both challenged and denied climate science from the start. Rubio began his political career as a climate moderate, but has become a climate denier.


Ted Cruz (R)

Since the start of Cruz’s Senate tenure in 2013, he has fought any recognition of climate change, however symbolic. In early 2013, Cruz took issue with a statement in a bill commemorating International Women’s Day stating that women "are disproportionately affected by changes in climate” and fought successfully to eliminate it from the bill. In 2014, and again in 2015, Cruz introduced his biggest effort to combat clean energy initiatives with the introduction of the American Energy Renaissance Act (AERA). If passed, AERA would prevent any federal regulation of fracking, repeal the Renewable Fuel Standard, build the Keystone XL pipeline, require Congressional approval for all EPA regulations, and expand offshore drilling. Cruz frequently argues that there has been no recorded warming in the last 15 years, and in March compared those who believe in climate change to “flat-Earthers.”


Rand Paul (R)

Rand Paul has served in the United States Senate since 2011 and has consistently questioned the validity of climate science. In an April 2014 interview, he remarked that “anybody who's ever studied any geology knows that over . . . long periods of time, that the climate changes . . . I'm not sure anybody exactly knows why.” In September 2014, he criticized Hillary Clinton following a speech she gave on the importance of reducing carbon emissions, stating, “I don’t think we really want a commander-in-chief who’s battling climate change instead of terrorism.” Nevertheless, in early 2014, Paul suggested that he supported reducing carbon pollution “whether or not the [climate] models were correct.”


Marco Rubio (R)

Before being elected to the United States Senate in 2010, Marco Rubio served as a Representative in the Florida House of Delegates, and as its Speaker for two years. During those years he made a number of statements in support of climate change mitigation efforts, and voted in favor of Florida cap-and-trade legislation in 2008. In his 2006 book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future, Rubio emphasized the importance of hybrid vehicles and their role in curbing global warming. Since his election to the United States Senate in 2010, Rubio has taken a dramatically different approach to climate change, consistently fighting climate science with comments such as, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”



Climate Change, its acknowledgement and what to do about it, is one of the defining issues of our time. That makes it essential for voters to know how every candidate stands on the issue, whether they believe climate action is required, and what kinds of actions and policies they would support. Admittedly, statements made by candidates running for their party's nomination are not always reliable indicators of their true intentions. Primary voters tend to be more partisan than the electorate as a whole, and most candidates moderate their positions once they are running in the general election. That is why this article examined both the latest statements by candidates, but also their past actions and statements.

As the country with the greatest amount of historical carbon emissions, and correspondingly the country that has had the greatest impact on the climate, many consider the United States to have a moral responsibility for facilitating global action to prevent further climate change. With the global community looking to the United States for leadership, peer-reviewed science, rather than ideology, should drive the discussion on climate change and inform the international discussion on climate mitigation.


Author: Ori Gutin.