Where the 2016 Presidential Candidates Stand on Climate Change

Last Updated:
Fri, 2018-04-20 11:44

The first Democratic debate kicked off last night on CNN, and, as one might expect, the topic of climate change surfaced in a way we’ve never seen before.

In previous debates and elections, climate change was a blip on the radar, receiving only a mention or two here and there. At last night's Democratic debate, the candidates positioned climate change as a top-tier issue, devoting nearly 3 more minutes to the subject than the Republicans did during their last debate in September. As a reminder, the Republican candidates have participated in three debates so far, with climate change only popping up once, during the 9/16/15 debate. The Democratic candidates seemed intent on differentiating themselves right from the start – four of the five candidates mentioned climate change in their opening statements, and the topic was brought up in passing several times throughout the 2.5-hour debate.

With climate change receiving more attention on the national political stage than ever before, we wanted to take a quick moment to review where the 2016 presidential candidates stand on the issue. Looking purely at the 9/16/15 Republican Debate and the 10/13/15 Democratic Debate, let’s recap some key points and quotes from the presidential candidates.

Presidential Candidates

Democratic Candidates

Generally speaking, the Democratic candidates accept the mainstream findings of climate scientists, which is that manmade emissions of greenhouse gases are driving global average temperatures higher, melting ice sheets, and raising sea levels, among other effects.

DEM - Martin O’Malley (Former Maryland Governor)

  • Climate change is one of O’Malley’s main campaign talking points
  • Has released the most detailed climate change plan of any of the Democratic candidates, pledging 100% renewable energy by 2050
  • Indicated that an executive order on the issue would be his first action as president
  • Made more mentions of climate change during the debate than any other candidate

Memorable Quote: “We did not land a man on the moon with an all-of-the-above strategy. It was an intentional engineering challenge, and we solved it as a nation. And our nation must solve this one.”


DEM – Bernie Sanders (Vermont Senator)

  • Believes that addressing climate change is a moral issue
  • When asked what the U.S.’s biggest national security threat was, Sanders said climate change

Memorable Quote: “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 fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable.”


DEM – Hillary Clinton (Former Secretary of State)

  • Largely referred to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, where she and President Obama “literally hunted down” the Chinese to discuss their contribution toward and actions addressing climate change. Although there has been some controversy surrounding this Copenhagen Accord, Clinton was proud to note that this was the first time that the Chinese acknowledged its responsibility to reduce emissions.

Memorable Quote: “I do think that the bilateral agreement that President Obama made with the Chinese was significant. Now, it needs to go further, and there will be an international meeting at the end of this year, and we must get verifiable commitments to fight climate change from every country gathered there.”


DEM – Jim Webb (Former Virginia Senator)

  • Pointed to China and India as the largest contributors to climate change
  • Supported the “all of the above” energy strategy
  • Supports alternative energy via nuclear power

Memorable Quote: “If you look at China and India, they’re the greatest polluters in the world. Fifteen out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in one of those two countries. We need to solve this in a global way.”


DEM – Lincoln Chafee (Former Rhode Island Governor)

  • When asked which enemy he is most proud of making, he pointed to the coal lobby
  • Received the least amount of speaking time (9 min 5 sec)

Memorable Quote: “I want to address climate change, a real threat to our planet.”

Republican Candidates

Generally speaking, the Republican candidates reject the mainstream findings of climate scientists. During their 3-hour debate in September, Republicans answered one question about climate change. Moderator Jake Tapper inquired whether the candidates would follow the guidance of Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, who advocated for some kind of action on climate change as an “insurance policy.” Only three candidates responded: Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker.


REP – Marco Rubio (Florida Senator)

  • Believes there’s nothing a government intervention can do to fix our climate

Memorable Quote: "We are not going to destroy our economy, make America a harder place to create jobs, in order to pursue a policy that will do nothing, nothing to change our climate, to change our weather.”


REP – Chris Christie (New Jersey Governor)

  • Previously stated that he believed climate change to be real but has since backed off
  • Boasted that NJ was able to reach its clean air goals for 2020 by utilizing nuclear energy
  • Respectfully disagreed with Reagan’s secretary of state

Memorable Quote: “…we don’t need this massive government intervention to deal with the problem."


REP – Scott Walker (Wisconsin Governor)

  • Dropped out of the 2016 presidential race on 9/21/15


When it comes to climate change, the candidates have very passionate views at both ends of the spectrum. As Mashable noted in its coverage of the Democratic debate, moderate voters who favor taking action on global warming but also oppose certain left- or right-wing policy positions have few choices for president.

Climate change is not a top-tier issue for the Republicans, so it’s tough to say whether we’ll learn more about the 2016 presidential candidates’ views in the next 9 debates. On the other hand, the Democratic candidates have already given us much to discuss and ponder from their first debate, so you can bet we’ll see more discussions on the subject during the next five Democratic debates.