For Benji Backer, being conservative means believing in limited government, market-based solutions — and the scientists who say carbon emissions must be cut to avoid the worst of climate change.
On Saturday, Backer’s nonprofit, the American Conservation Coalition, will hold what it believes is the country’s first conservative climate rally, part of an effort by the 23-year-old activist to convince fellow right-leaning Americans they don’t have to be liberals to support action on the issue.
The rally is being held in Miami, a city threatened by tidal floods from rising seas, stronger hurricanes, and health risks from higher temperatures and humidity, and is expected to include a handful of Republican lawmakers.
“We want to start showing older conservatives, and conservatives that are younger, that climate is an issue that you can lead on without compromising your principles,” he said.
Backer, an avid skier and hiker, began organizing ACC while a college freshman when Donald Trump, who said climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese, became president. The group says it hopes its membership, currently in the thousands, will expand to 10,000 by the end of this year.
His mission reflects a nuance in US climate politics that is often lost in the partisan debate: while the Republican Party is seen as opposed to climate action, many of its members believe in global warming but disagree with liberals over how to fix it.
That poses no small problem, however.
Environmentalists accuse Backer’s group of obstructing the aggressive climate action they say is needed to save the planet by proposing half-measure market-based solutions instead.
While ACC supports parts of Democratic President Joe Biden’s climate plan such as those that focus on innovation, from nuclear energy advances to carbon capture and storage, it also faults his proposals for being bloated and for failing “to streamline burdensome regulations.”
Biden’s administration hopes to decarbonize the US economy by 2050 and the power sector by 2035, mainly by ramping up clean energy use and electrifying vehicles and buildings.
The ACC platform only calls for moving “toward” global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, not hitting the target or surpassing it. Rather than the mandates included in Biden’s plan, it favors “market solutions” to cutting greenhouse gases, such as constructing more buildings out of wood that stores carbon, creating new forests in a “trillion trees” program, and increasing use of emissions-free hydropower.
TAKING ACTION NOW
Critics say the incremental efforts of conservative groups like ACC could delay progress on the urgent steps needed to curb climate change.
“We have the technology to fight climate change today. We need to start taking action now,” said Julie McNamara, an analyst in the climate and energy program at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.
Carla Staver, an ecologist and the associate director of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, added that planting new forests can be one component of a comprehensive approach on climate change, but that estimates of their climate impact put forward by some conservatives can be “wildly optimistic.”
Another big sticking point for climate activists: ACC does not support imposing a carbon fee, a market mechanism that would encourage investors to move to cleaner energy sources.
“An obsessive focus on innovation and policies which impose no costs on anyone are by definition policies that are not up to the task,” said Jerry Taylor, the president of the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank.
ACC hopes there will soon be hundreds of climate-minded Republicans in Congress, up from dozens now, pointing to recent polls that show that younger Republicans are more open to curbing climate change than older ones.
Among Republican lawmakers expected to join the Miami rally are Representatives Carlos Giménez and Maria Salazar, both elected just in 2020.
But for now staunch Republican support for the drilling and mining industries still looms over conservative efforts on climate.
Taylor said small steps may be as far as the party can go at the moment given that many Republican lawmakers represent states with major fossil fuel industries.
“It could be that this kind of small ball incrementalism is all that really is possible,” he said.