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Candidates on Climate: With the Election on the Horizon, Keep Climate a Priority

In mid-February, Nikki Haley, the Republican former governor of South Carolina, entered the 2024 presidential race. In a poll of 1,500 Republican voters, 11 percent of respondents backed Haley, compared to DeSantis (35%) and Donald Trump (38%). As voters begin to consider the expanding field of candidates, assessing and comparing their positions on climate challenges and solutions play a critical role in supporting well-informed choices and decision-making.


Breaking rank from former President Trump, who referred to climate change as “a hoax”, both DeSantis and Haley appear willing to accept the scientific consensus that Earth’s climate is warming. .  However, neither has shown earnest commitment to engaging in the bold action necessary to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the “ceiling” determined by the IPCC needed to curtail severe climate impacts, including extreme heat, severe drought, wildfires, and more devastating hurricanes.


Successfully addressing climate change will require a multi-national, multi-faceted, and expedient effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  While DeSantis has allocated considerable funding to climate adaption – or increasing Florida’s community resilience to climate impacts – he has not embraced mitigation activities necessary to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions at the root of the problem. Halley leans toward a narrow approach focused on removing carbon from the atmosphere – citing a plan to address climate change not by reducing carbon, but by capturing it.


According to the United Nations, the technology and financing needed to curb carbon pollution on the scale that’s required, “cannot be achieved through incremental change.”  It will not be enough to simply capture harmful emissions from heavily polluting industries while ignoring other carbon-producing activities.  Making tangible strides in the race to save Earth’s climate mandates a holistic approach and is contingent on preventing emissions from entering the atmosphere in the first place.


Stabilizing Earth’s climate will also depend on global cooperation, which Haley has skirted in the past For instance, during her tenure as UN ambassador, Haley played a significant role in the 2017 US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, stating that the United States would “not jeopardize our economy in order to please other countries that don’t come anywhere near our environmental standards”. This statement conflicts with the fact that the United States is actually responsible for producing some of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world.  Moreover, framing the expansion of carbon reduction strategies as an economic risk ignores the predicted financial and societal loss associated with worsening climate impacts and the potential opportunities for US companies to emerge as leaders of a ‘green economy.’


In 2015 when extreme weather inundated swaths of coastal South Carolina with up to 25 inches of rain, farmers lost an estimated $330 million worth of crops in the field at harvest time, on top of $46 million in winter crops that couldn’t be planted. As Governor, Haley requested $140 million to help homeowners but did not include any direct aid for farmers.  Haley gained experience with mitigating the impacts of climate change and incorporating resilience into the rebuilding process, but her failure to address the plight of farmers, a sector very vulnerable to climate impacts, was denounced by then Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, as well as other Republican legislators.


Haley’s go-to solution – carbon capture and storage (CCS) – is arguably a critical component of solving climate change.  However, at present, operational “industrial” CCS projects remove only about 45 million tons of CO2 annually, roughly the equivalent of taking 10 million passenger cars off the road, just a fraction of the carbon removal needed.  This version of CCS is limited in that it typically uses a liquid to chemically remove CO2 before it exits a smokestack – so locations appropriate for use are restricted to large stationary sources releasing CO2, like power plants, or industrial facilities manufacturing cement, steel, or chemicals. Once captured, carbon emissions are compressed into a liquid-like state and transported via pipeline to a storage site – usually geological formations like used-up oil and gas reservoirs, or those that contain unusable salty water.


According to MIT, increasing carbon capture with CCS may be further supported with “utilization”, or marketing and selling CO2 emissions as a product to make it cheaper for companies to invest in capturing them.  For instance, CO2  can be shot into oil wells to help flush out hard-to-extract oil. Pure CO2 is also used in greenhouses to grow plants, and companies and labs are working on turning CO2 into plastics, building materials like cement and concrete, fuels, futuristic materials like carbon fibers and graphene, and even household products like baking soda, bleach, antifreeze, inks, and paints.


Several new types of capture processes are under development, but the planet needs more than CCS. Haley has also pointed toward planting thousands of trees. Trees do provide excellent environmental benefits – they take up carbon as part of the photosynthesis process, help filter and purify stormwater runoff, and provide habitat and cooling shade. However, even planting 1.2 billion trees each year, would still only address 20% of the existing CO2 accumulation. We can’t plant enough trees to solve the climate crisis, without limiting additional emissions.


Simply acknowledging that climate change is real and offering partial solutions, currently, the stance of current GOP presidential candidates,  will not solve the problem.  Avoiding a climate crisis rests upon adopting a cost-effective, diversified approach that includes renewable energy, electric vehicles, and more efficient buildings and industrial plants. It is also a politically savvy way to move forward, as 72 percent of Americans favor requiring power companies to use more energy from renewable sources and 75 percent support the United States participating in international efforts to help reduce the effects of climate change, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.



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