In advance of Earth Day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy unveiled on Monday the Energy Innovation Agenda, a three-day virtual forum highlighting a flurry of House Republican-sponsored bills geared toward clean energy infrastructure, conservation, and other market-oriented climate proposals. “Democrats often dismiss Republicans as being disinterested in addressing global climate change,” McCarthy said Monday in a video introducing this week’s climate initiative.
“This is just false,” McCarthy said. “Our members have been working for years to develop thoughtful, targeted legislation to reduce global emissions by ensuring we can develop and build new technology at home that is clean, affordable, and exportable.”
Among other bills, this week’s Republican-led climate agenda highlights the Forestry Education and Workforce Act, the Trillion Trees Act, and the Growing Climate Solutions Act, all market-oriented proposals that focus on forest management, renewable energy, and carbon capture and sequestration.
But unlike the Green New Deal, newly reintroduced by progressive Democrats on Tuesday, the Energy Innovation Agenda made few headlines this week. “Climate change has been a ‘gotcha’ issue for conservatives for so long, it seems the media isn’t willing to give that up,” 23-year-old Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, told The Dispatch. “Instead of focusing on the most attention-grabbing headline, the media should focus on conservatives stepping up to the plate in good faith.”
Bringing attention to those conservatives who are making efforts around climate change is one of the missions of the ACC. Backer says that alongside several other conservative climate groups, ACC has empowered younger Americans to rally around market-oriented climate proposals as an alternative to wide-ranging and government-heavy progressive proposals like the Green New Deal. Over the past four years, ACC has also sought to encourage conservative environmentalism on Capitol Hill by equipping congressional Republicans with effective messaging strategies surrounding conservation issues.
ACC-affiliated GOP representatives speak of conservation as a natural outgrowth of conservatism. “To me, conservation is simply being good stewards of what we have, and it’s leaving the Earth as good or better from an environmental standpoint than we found it,” Arkansas GOP Rep. Bruce Westerman, ranking member of the Committee on Natural Resources, told The Dispatch.
Climate-conscious conservatives are also quick to point out that environmentalism has deep roots in the GOP beyond acclaimed conservationist figures like former President Teddy Roosevelt and former Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “Ronald Reagan was a champion of supporting public lands and finding ways to lower emissions through different technology initiatives,” he said. “And then you look at President H.W. Bush and George W. Bush who both acknowledged climate change, they both supported a lot of public lands protections.”
“In the ‘60s when we got the Endangered Species Act, we got the Environmental Protection Agency, we got the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, that was all done under the Nixon administration,” said Westerman, the lone registered forester in Congress and a key sponsor of the Trillion Trees Act. “There’ve always been conservatives that believed in the true tenets of conservation. But I think you’ve seen the left come in and radicalize environmentalism and it’s made it look like they care more about the environment than conservatives and Republicans.”
A 2019 Pew Research poll showed that 90 percent of Democrats thought the government was doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, compared with only 39 percent of Republicans. And while a quick retort to that might be that Republicans prefer market-based solutions, a different Pew poll from 2020 indicated that 88 percent of Democrats view climate change as a “major threat” to the U.S., as compared with 31 percent of Republicans.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Broken down for age, the 2019 Pew poll showed that 52 percent of millennial and younger Republicans want the government to do more about climate change.
GOP Rep. Pete Meijer of Michigan spoke of this generational divide in an interview with The Dispatch. “It’s a rising generation, especially Millennials and Gen Z, for whom the climate and environment more broadly are really at the top of the list of issues they’re concerned about,” Meijer said.
But Meijer added that older Republicans have been surprisingly more receptive to climate action than he had originally anticipated. “I’ll be honest: The first time I was asked a question in front of the Tea Party about climate change and I said ‘Well, I believe climate change is real,’ I was expecting to get booted out of the room. There was no booing. People waited to see what I said next.”
But congressional Republicans know that reshaping the public’s perception of conservative environmentalism is an uphill battle. “I think we’ve got to go earn credibility in the space, honestly,” Nebraska GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, ranking member on the House Agriculture Subcommittee, told The Dispatch. “We have to do a better job of appealing, particularly the younger generation who really longs for the steeper set of values and propositions that we can protect things and create wellbeing for people and community at the same time.”
Language, Fortenberry said, is key. “The Republican reaction to public policy cannot just be the word ‘no.’”
Fortenberry added that the condescending and often apocalyptic language of left-leaning climate activists shuts many ordinary Americans out of the debate. “Instead of demanding religious assent to the idea of climate change as the most fundamental threat to everything, why don’t we stay in the space of talking about environmental health, renewable energy, bridging to a sustainable future, recreating the idea of, again, the protection of the biosphere, the protection of the environment, as it’s wedded to new emerging economic opportunity for agriculture, for better forest management, for ecotourism,” Fortenberry said. “When you do those things, everybody gets on board.”
Like Fortenberry, Meijer emphasized that environmentally minded Republicans oppose one-size-fits-all climate solutions that are intended to restructure the entire economy. “What I don’t like is when everything is geared towards one Hail Mary, everything hung on the Christmas tree proposal like just about everything the Democrats are pushing forward, and more focused on what outcomes we’re seeking to achieve rather than just arbitrary inputs,” Meijer said.
Launched in 2017, ACC has sought to make market-oriented environmentalism a permanent fixture of the Republican Party, citing younger generations’ concerns about climate change as evidence that the Republican Party needs to alter its messaging on the issue if it wants to expand its base. “They’re seeing it like, I sense it,” Fortenberry said of ACC’s understanding of conservative environmentalism, “That this is an ethos that is a fundamental pursuit of good for the wellbeing of persons and for the wellbeing of the environment.”
Then why has the right been absent from this dialogue for so long? “Conservatives are solely reluctant to admit climate change is a problem because all the policies that have been proposed have been antithetical to conservative values and rural Americans specifically and their livelihoods,” Backer said.
“For conservatives, it’s actually really sad that they’ve lost their seats at the table because they have the most to lose,” Backer said, citing climate change and its effect on rainfall, severe weather, and other environmental damages in rural areas.
GOP Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma said it all comes back to responsible stewardship of the land. “I represent a part of the United States that was the dust bowl in the Great Depression,” he said. “My home county had 14,000 people in the 1930s after the Great Depression on the dust bowl. We’ll be lucky to get back to 3,500. I believe in protecting the soil, the water, and the air,” Lucas said. “I believe that as a farmer, it is not just my attitude, but it is my responsibility to make sure that the generations to come will have soil to do the ability to use, to raise the food fiber that we need.”
Backer thinks that conservative environmentalism has been “waiting in the wings” for quite some time now, but hasn’t taken off until recently because the Democratic Party has monopolized the debate and conservatives haven’t known how to broach the issue with their constituents.
“When [ACC] started, we didn’t realize how many allies we have in Congress. We didn’t realize how many really incredible leaders that were behind the scenes that wanted to engage on this topic,” Backer said. “We’ve seen an immense growth of support from elected officials and people who have said: ‘Hey, I’ve always thought climate change was a priority, but I didn’t know that I could get from my own side to take action and for my own voters.’”
Correction, April 22, 2021: This article originally misstated the name of the American Conservation Coalition.