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The Young Republicans Imploring the 2024 Candidates to Get Serious About Climate Change

Here’s what the American Conservation Coalition hopes to hear at the first Republican debate.

Debate podiums.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

After the first Republican presidential debate wraps up in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, the candidates will be invited to an unusual reception. The official afterparty has been sponsored by the American Conservation Coalition, a young conservative advocacy group that has made a name for itself advocating for Republican Party leaders to act on climate change.

The group was founded in 2017 by Benji Backer, a student at the University of Washington who wanted to see the party return to its Rooseveltian environmental roots, and was convinced that his peers felt the same. While polls consistently show that climate change is not a priority for Republican voters — many don’t even consider it a threat — the picture changes when broken down by age, with younger generations wanting the government to do more on the issue.

The ACC has since grown into a network of about 20,000 members and helped pass a handful of bipartisan bills under both the Trump and Biden administrations, including the Great Outdoors Act, which directed billions to the National Parks Service for deferred maintenance, and the Growing Climate Solutions Act, designed to help farmers engage in carbon markets. In general, the ACC wants to see the government invest more in innovation, conservation, and domestic energy production, and mostly get out of the market’s way. Most recently, it has been pushing for Congress to streamline environmental reviews to speed up energy development, an issue often summarized as “permitting reform.”

But the ACC has faced an uphill battle. Climate change is still polarizing in Congress, and solutions are increasingly framed by conservative officials and pundits in culture war terms. Now, gearing up for the first presidential election since the group’s founding, the ACC hopes to convince Republican candidates, who have been mostly reticent about the warming planet, to start talking about it. “Fewer than half of Americans believe that Biden's climate policies are taking the country in the right direction,” the ACC’s new president, Christopher Barnard, told me, citing a recent Pew survey. “That offers an incredible opportunity for Republicans to offer a more compelling alternative, and right now, we're not really doing that.”

I spoke to Barnard just after he landed in Milwaukee on Tuesday about the "electoral ticking time bomb" Republicans face, what questions he wants candidates to speak to at the debate, and the group's hopes for sponsoring the afterparty. Our conversation has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

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  • What has the American Conservation Coalition been up to in 2023 so far?

    The 118th Congress marks the first time in quite a while that we've had Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives. We've looked at that as an opportunity for Republicans to take a seat at the table when it comes to pushing for policy that can help tackle climate change, strengthen energy security, and reduce emissions. And so we've done a lot of engagement on Capitol Hill on things like permitting reform, nuclear energy, the farm bill, nature-based solutions, critical minerals.

    We feel like we're in a really interesting moment right now, where, from our perspective, all of the top solutions to climate and energy problems are things that conservatives can not only get behind, but can actually lead on.

    When you say the top solutions are things that Republicans can lead on, are you seeing that leadership in this Congress?

    Yeah. Especially on the policy side of things, we saw how much McCarthy and Congressman Graves and Chairman Westerman have been pushing for permitting reform. We obviously got a taste of that in the debt ceiling negotiation. We would like to see much more and that's something that Republicans are still pushing for, which I think is the number one thing right now we can do to tackle climate change.

    There is still a little bit of a disconnect between that and their rhetoric on the issue. When it comes to nuclear or critical minerals or permitting reform, there's really a huge opportunity for Republicans to retake the climate and environmental conversation and say, Look, these are conservative, limited-government, small market-based solutions, that would actually really help climate change more than say, the Green New Deal. And they're not really putting it that way. So while I've been pleased with some of the policy progress, we want to see Republicans be bolder and more ambitious and really start saying the things that are going to win them back the youth vote that they've lost.

    What kinds of questions do you hope to see the presidential candidates asked about climate change tomorrow?

    If I were to ask them a question, I would ask, what do you tell a young conservative, who loves America, who is also concerned about environmental and climate issues? What is your positive vision of the future to tackle this problem?

    I think there's a tendency for questions around climate change to be loaded with words that are quite partisan. For example, the term climate crisis is incredibly unpopular with Americans in general and obviously Republicans don't respond very well to that. But asking about things like how do you tackle pollution? How do you make sure that we have a thriving planet for future generations? How do you ensure clean energy, all-of-the-above energy? Those are all things that Republicans are actually very on board with.

    Also, what their plan is for American strength on the international stage. Battery technologies, EVs, wind and solar, critical minerals, all these crucial components of the clean energy future are being taken over by China because they see what's going to happen. They want to be the Saudi Arabia of clean energy, and we cannot allow that to happen. So any Republican answer on foreign policy should include, what are we going to do to be the most innovative country in the world? To have secure supply chains? To work with our allies? I think those are interconnected with other issues that Americans and Republicans care about, which is national security, energy security, etc.

    What other climate-related messages or policies does the ACC want to hear the candidates talk about?

    ACC has a platform called the Climate Commitment with six big ideas to tackle climate change rooted in limited government, market-based, conservative ideals. Some of those that I think would make perfect sense for a Republican candidate to bring up would be the importance of unleashing all American energy. So it's not just fossil fuels, but it’s unleashing nuclear energy, unleashing wind and solar, getting the government-imposed barriers out of the way of these energy sources and allowing them all to thrive and compete in the marketplace.

    I think another one is how America's rural communities, farmers, ranchers, hunters, can be part of tackling climate change and protecting the environment. Those are super conservative, red parts of the country that actually have a huge role to play, whether it's farmers implementing sustainable practices on their land that reduces emissions, or rural communities hosting clean energy sites. There's so much that rural communities can do to be part of the solution.

    What does it mean for ACC to be sponsoring the afterparty for the debate? What are you hoping to get out of it?

    It’s to show that Republicans take this issue seriously now. They understand that they have a huge electoral ticking time bomb if they don't talk about it. We've seen already in the last few months how some of the impacts of climate change, whether it's heat waves, or whatever else it might be— people are realizing the importance of this.

    ACC hosting this shows that it's entirely possible to be both an environmentalist and a conservative. They are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. That's really the message that we want to bring to this, and to push Republicans, especially those standing up on the stage, to come up with a compelling vision of how they're going to tackle this issue that young conservatives can get excited about.

    What did you mean when you said they have an electoral ticking time bomb?

    If you look at demographic numbers, by 2028, millennials and Gen Z will be a majority of potential voters. By next decade, they will be over 60% of potential voters. Polling routinely shows that climate and environment are the top three, top five issues for them.

    And young people are increasingly swinging elections. We saw in the midterms that in all the key Senate races that Republicans lost, young people showed out in historic numbers and overwhelmingly voted for Democrats. If Republicans don't regain the trust of young people on this issue, they face losing an entire generation of voters that are increasingly prioritizing this.

    At this after-party, if you're coming face to face with the candidates, and you're trying to convince them why they should make climate change a bigger part of their campaign, what’s your argument? When right now, the majority of the Republican Party does not see it as a priority?

    We know that this is an issue that matters enormously in general elections, whether it's trying to peel off independent voters, whether it's suburban moms, whether it's young voters. In some districts, it's just a few thousand votes that can make the difference. So I would tell them you need to, at the very least, have a bit of a platform to go off if you were to get to a general. I think DeSantis is really well-positioned for this, because he can point to his strong conservation track record in Florida in his time as governor — a lot of work on clean air, clean water, healthy communities. Base voters won't be upset about that, but that also allows him a jumping off point for a general election.

    There's plenty of examples around the country of red states where governors have embraced things like EVs or wind and solar because they're creating jobs in their state. Wind and solar are much more popular with Republicans than people might think. And so I think there's ways that you can talk about this issue that don't evoke a negative reaction.

    Which candidates are you most looking forward to hearing from tomorrow night?

    I'm interested in seeing what DeSantis has to say after his campaign faltering, and seeing if he can stage a comeback and what that might look like. And in the past, ACC has been impressed by things that Tim Scott has said and done. I'll be interested to see what his “happy warrior” approach will look like in the debate. We did a video with Nikki Haley about what the conservative alternative to the green New Deal looks like, and so I’m interested to see what she's going to bring to the table.

    What does it say to you that Donald Trump has decided not to participate in the debate tomorrow?

    I was honestly very disappointed by it. Because my general sense is that if you want to have the American people vote for you, you should be willing to stand on stage and make that case why they should vote for you.

    Read more about the Republican primary:

    Where the Republican Candidates Stand on Climate Change

    Emily Pontecorvo profile image

    Emily Pontecorvo

    Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.


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