Haley Is More Climate Conscious Than Trump—Which Isn’t Saying Much

She admits warming is real, but is still all in on fossil fuels.

Nikki Haley speaking in front of a "Haley" poster in New Hampshire.

Nikki Haley campaigns in New Hampshire.Cj Gunther/EFE/Zuma

This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In her recent memoir, presidential candidate Nikki Haley recounted a telling anecdote about her role in pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017 when she served as the nation’s United Nations ambassador.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pleaded with her not to do it, she said. Prior to joining the Trump Administration, Tillerson was the chief executive of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest non-government owned oil and gas company, and had spent his career overseeing the extraction of the very fossil fuels that made a global climate agreement necessary. He argued that the US needed to stay in the Paris agreement as part of a larger effort to save the country from Trump’s worst instincts.  

Haley wouldn’t have it. In With All Due Respect, a book she published in 2019, she writes  that Tillerson and other cabinet members who opposed the President’s policies were “dangerous” and “disloyal.”

Fast forward five years: Haley is now running against her former boss in the Republican presidential primary. Unlike Trump, who maintains that climate change is a “hoax,” Haley says global warming is real and needs to be addressed. 

She positions herself as a moderate alternative to frontrunner Trump and the “chaos” that follows him. The American Conservation Coalition Action, a conservative environmental organization, gives the former ambassador its highest ranking among Republican presidential candidates for efforts to address climate change.  

However, beyond acknowledging the reality of climate change, there is little daylight between Haley and Trump on climate policy.

Earlier this fall, Haley denigrated the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest investment in reducing carbon emissions in US history, as a “communist manifesto” of “green energy handouts” that she would repeal if elected.  

At a recent town hall meeting at the Saddle Up Saloon in Kingston, New Hampshire, she boasted about the part she played in pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement. Haley added that if she is elected president, the US will be “energy dominant.”

“We will get the EPA out of the way,” she said at the Jan. 3 event. “We will speed up the permitting process, we’ll get our pipelines going, we’ll do the Keystone pipeline, we’ll export as much liquefied natural gas as we can.”

Haley’s focus on a “drill-baby-drill” form of energy dominance while obstructing climate action has been a recurring theme starting with her time as governor of South Carolina. 

Soon after she took office in 2011, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) drafted a detailed report on the impacts of climate change that was subsequently buried, according to reporting by The State, which suggested a Haley appointee may have been to blame.

“The Haley appointed board of DNR ousted the longtime DNR chief around that time, and then sat on the report for over a year,” John Tynan, president of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said.

In 2013, Haley and fellow Republican governors from Virginia and North Carolina wrote a letter to Sally Jewell, who had just been nominated as President Barack Obama’s interior secretary. The letter asked Jewell to open waters off their states to offshore drilling, as part of a Republican “Energy Blueprint for America,” which never came to fruition.

The following year, Haley blasted the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which called for curbing coal fired power production as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Haley said the plan was another example of Washington “sending us backwards.”

In their “report card” for Haley following her first term as governor, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina gave her a “D.”

“The best way to describe Governor Haley’s record on the environment in South Carolina is that, it’s not that she fought and was aggressively anti-environmental, she just really ignored it,” Tynan said. “It just was not a priority for her.”  

In the recent scorecard by the conservative environmental group, the American Conservation Coalition Action, or ACCA, the one box Haley didn’t earn points for was support for clean energy technology.

“I agree with the fact that just saying it’s real and saying we should be doing something about it is not nearly enough,” ACCA President Chris Barnard said.

However, Barnard said he felt Haley would take action to address climate change.   

“I think that the conservative solutions that I know Nikki Haley supports,” he said, “whether it’s permitting reform to cut red tape that would disproportionately help clean energy projects get off the ground, or whether it’s unleashing nuclear energy, or whether it’s just investing in carbon capture and storage technologies, I think those are all solutions that are limited government, conservative solutions that are actually going to do something about the problem.”

Barnard added that US exports of liquified natural gas would offer a cleaner alternative to the continued use of coal in other countries.

Climate scientists challenge that assumption by factoring methane leaks into LNG’s greenhouse gas footprint and are urging the Biden Administration to curb US gas exports.

Lawrence Hamilton, a sociology professor at University of New Hampshire, said that calling for reducing fossil fuel use and funding renewable energy constitute  a “third rail” issue for most Republicans.

“I think now it’s kind of a purity test, that you have to take a stance against doing fossil fuel reductions,” Hamilton said.

By acknowledging climate change is real yet stopping short of calling for reducing fossil fuels, he and other analysts say Haley seems to have succeeded in differentiating herself from Trump while still passing the party’s “purity test.”

Americans for Prosperity Action, an influential conservative advocacy group with close ties to the fossil fuel industry, endorsed Haley in November.  

Her stance on climate and energy also seems to resonate with those who attend her events.

Hamilton said her acknowledgement that climate change is real may be enough to satisfy some voters.  

While heading to his GMC Sierra pickup truck in the parking lot of the Saddle Up Saloon following Haley’s recent town hall, Lester Reed, a 77-year-old independent voter from Plaistow lamented the lack of snow.

“I remember back in my day, this time of year, we had two, three feet of snow,” Reed said. “You see any snow around here? There’s something wrong, way wrong.” 

Reed said he has gone to multiple Haley events and likes what she has to say about climate change.

“She knows what’s going on,” he said.

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

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