Young Republicans want new approach to climate change
Conservative climate activists demand answers from GOP candidates
At age 25, Chris Barnard has already led environmental organizations in the United States and in Europe to push climate-change related legislation. This year, he was promoted to president of the American Conservation Coalition, the largest conservative environmental group. The coalition sends more than 20,000 activists to canvas the country in search of conservative solutions to climate change.
“I honestly reject the notion that tackling climate change or wanting to do something about it is fundamentally left wing,” Barnard told me. “Just saying that climate change is real and that we want to do something about it doesn’t mean that you are just accepting the solutions of the left. It means that you can also come up with your own solutions. And we believe that conservative solutions are better.”
ACC was a prominent player on debate night. The coalition sponsored the afterparty following the first Republican primary debate. Moderators that night played a video from Catholic University of America student and ACC member Alex Diaz, who mentioned polling that shows young conservatives prioritize concerns about climate change. “How will you as both president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party calm their fears that the Republican Party doesn’t care about climate change?” he asked.
Moderators directed candidates to raise their hands if they agreed with the statement that humans contribute to climate change. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed back and insisted on a debate, not a show of hands. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy insisted, “The climate change agenda is a hoax.” His statement elicited boos from the audience. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said climate change is real, but the first step to addressing it is to bring China, the world’s biggest polluter, to heel.
Behind the scenes, Barnard and the ACC counted it a win that the question was even asked. Younger voters saw the debate night as a harbinger of change for the party and environmental policy. And they may be right.
According to a September 2022 Associated Press-NORC poll, 62 percent of Americans say the federal government is not doing enough to reduce climate change. While Democrats comprise the bulk of those responses, surveys find divisions among Republican respondents. Roughly 17 percent of young Republicans said they felt “anxious” when talking about climate change compared with just 7 percent of older Republicans. Data published by Pew Research last month found two-thirds of Republicans under age 30 prioritize alternative energy sources compared to 75 percent of Republicans aged 65 and above who prioritize expanding oil, coal, and natural gas production.
The ACC recently supported programs included in the upcoming Farm Bill that would incentivize farming practices that reduce emissions, a pillar of the organization’s push for better conservation practices. Barnard said that young voters are watching rising sea levels with concern and want lawmakers to do something about it.
Benjamin Zycher, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said younger voters are getting caught up in emotional rhetoric. He criticized older Republican lawmakers for caving to this demographic for votes.
“For various reasons, the Republicans have not proven themselves very willing to stick to the hard work of developing a backbone and challenging the prevailing orthodoxy on climate issues,” Zycher told me. “They’re coming up with all kinds of stupid stuff: the trillion trees plan, carbon capture sequestration and all the rest.”
At the debate, Ramaswamy took the same issue with most climate-related policies coming from Washington.
“The anti-carbon agenda is the wet blanket on our economy,” he said. “More people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate.”
Critics of the policies say they stem from scare tactics that climate activists use and a misreading of environmental data. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases a yearly synthesis report on climate assessments and makes recommendations based on hypothetical scenarios. Barnard pointed out that the doomsday scenarios that make the most headlines are always the least likely to happen. He said the heightened reporting is off-putting to conservatives who then “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
“Our conservative view is actually somewhere in the middle,” Barnard said. “Where climate change is real, it will have an impact on erratic weather patterns, drought, and increased precipitation in other areas. It will have an impact on sea level rise. All that kind of stuff is true. It’s just not going to be as cataclysmic as some people claim.”
The crisis rhetoric does appear to be motivating voters, including young conservatives. Andrew Baumann and Melissa Bell are two Democratic public opinion strategists who advise candidates and environmental organizations. They recently wrote for The Hill that Republican candidates will have to start making climate change part of their platforms to meet the growing concern.
“As message strategists and pollsters, we have often advised clients that the most effective way to motivate voters is to talk about the disastrous impact climate change will have on the world we are leaving behind for our children and grandchildren,” they wrote. “Majorities of voters across the political spectrum —including Republicans—believe that climate change is a major problem and have an unfavorable view of lawmakers who deny that it is a threat. … Most problematic for Republicans, the political swing voters who will decide the 2024 election are strongly pro-climate and clean energy.”
Still, a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that roughly 72 percent of GOP voters want the economy to be given greater priority than climate policies. Also, Democrats are still more likely than Republicans to report being affected by climate change where they live. Zycher sees GOP concern about climate change as a young voter-induced trend that will pass if older Republicans can weather it.
“For Republican officeholders and policy makers and others being confronted with a younger cohort of Republican voters who care more than the older cohort, they just have to get up and stick to the facts,” Zycher said. “Stick to the rigorous analysis. Trying to co-opt them with ‘me too, but less’ is doomed to failure. You just wind up negotiating over which destructive policies you’re willing to accept.”
U.S. Sen John Barrasso, R-Wyo., serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He says his views on climate essentially have not changed, but conservatives have a chance to find better ways to address it than Democrats and President Joe Biden have so far.
“I believe climate change is real, and there’s human involvement in it,” Barrasso told me. “And we have to be responsible in the way we deal with it. My goal is always to try to make energy as clean as we can, as fast as we can, and in ways that don’t raise costs for people. Joe Biden has basically told the EPA to prioritize climate over affordable, available, reliable energy. We can sure do both.”
Barnard agrees that conservative policies can better address what he sees as an issue, if not a crisis. Although several conservatives were upset that the debate moderators included a climate change question, Barnard said it should be a more important party agenda item in 2024.
“Throughout history, conservatives have always been at the table when it comes to conservation and environmental issues,” Barnard said. “It’s actually ceding the agenda to the left if we just allow them to completely monopolize this one issue that is really a top priority for a lot of different key demographics, including young people and Republican voters. They just don’t want Big Government solutions that just make their lives harder and more expensive.”