Editor's Note: This story was initially published in Project Citizen: Climate 360, a collaboration between a diverse group of students from across the United States devoted to reporting on climate change.
Republicans are three times less likely than Democrats to believe that addressing climate change should be a top priority of government.
But change may be coming. Young Republicans — under age 39 — are twice as likely as their Baby Boomer elders to support climate action, according to the Pew Research Center.
Young Republicans have taken a more active role than previous conservative generations in the fight against climate change, distancing themselves from former President Donald Trump’s denial of global warming.
“There’s this outdated notion that Republicans don’t care about climate change. The reality is that we increasingly do,” Ben Smith, chairman of the Louisiana Association of College Republicans, said. “Young conservatives are particularly passionate about finding workable solutions that allow us to address and adapt to the pressures placed on us by climate change.”
Conservative Values and Climate Change
One of the most prominent climate-minded conservative organizations is the American Conservation Coalition, founded in 2017 by Millennials led by activist Benji Backer and “dedicated to mobilizing young people around environmental action through common-sense, market-based, and limited-government ideals.”
In 2020 the ACC released its American Climate Contract. According to Grist, a publication dedicated to climate reform, the contract is the conservative answer to the Green New Deal, a $93 trillion plan proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-D) to bring U.S. emissions to net-zero by 2030.
Following the proposal of the American Climate Contract, the group hosted the American Conservative Climate Rally on June 5 in Miami. The event highlighted Republican leadership in the field of climate activism.
There was a small Republican-led counterprotest at the rally where protesters called Baker and his colleagues RINOs – Republicans in Name Only.
Gallup’s annual survey on climate change shows political polarization around climate change to be worse than in nearly two decades.
In 2021, only 29% of Republicans believe climate change has already begun compared to 46% in 1993. Democrats’ belief in the science of climate change nearly doubled in the same time period from 46% to 82%.
Smith attributes this increased polarization to a false belief that science and hardline conservative politics are mutually exclusive.
“That’s a really harmful idea that’s come about lately, that science endorses one policy or the other,” Smith said. “As a conservative, I believe in conserving communities and being a good shepherd to the environment. To me, the scientific evidence behind climate change doesn’t dispute that ideology.”
Alexander Diaz, president of the Catholic University of America’s chapter of the ACC in Washington, D.C., said combating climate change is consistent with Republican values.
“I think it’s always been a part of the conservative identity. One of the first great conservationists was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican,” Diaz said. “I think that conservation feeds into the identity of conservatism because we’re trying to protect what we have right now to give it to the next generation.”
Will Donahue, president of Loyola Marymount University College Republicans and chief of staff of the California College Republicans, echoed the belief that conservation and environmentalism are key pillars of the Republican party.
“There’s this misconception that conservatives are climate destroyers – and it’s like no, conservatives were the first protectors of the environment,” Donahue explained. “Conservatives are often times hunters or fishermen. We enjoy the wild. So all of our rules and regulation for hunting and conserving species—a lot of these came from originally conservative policy changes.”
Diaz and Smith are optimistic regarding Republicans’ future involvement in mitigating the effects of climate change. And they believe a polarized political environment is the biggest issue in the American debate on climate change.
“The American people are losing out on a real honest and genuine conversation about climate change. I think that’s the consequence of us over politicizing it,” Smith said. “Everyone gets so frustrated with all the yelling and talking past each other that they just want a simple solution. The problem with climate change is that it’s much more nuanced than a simple solution.”
Same Problem, Different Solution
Young conservatives like Smith and Diaz say the existence of climate change isn’t up for debate. Democrats’ proposed solutions to the climate change is where they begin to diverge.
Republicans say policies like the Green New Deal and the Biden Administration’s climate plan are not effective or realistic methods to combat climate change.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm to talk about it,” Smith said. “At the end of the day it’s really performative and it is pointless if the solutions they’re offering aren’t viable. They need to be ensuring that the United States makes the transition away from fossil fuels in a way that is fiscally viable for the American people.”
In line with Biden’s climate plan, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a moderate Democrat, signed an executive order in November 2020 creating the Climate Initiatives Task Force, aimed at making the state carbon neutral by 2050. But Smith called the task force “money down the drain.” He said the task force is funding research already conducted by other administrations and a “performative action.”
“It’s very much the case of John Bel kicking the can down the road. The task force is saying they’re going to show us the results in five years,” Smith said. “But it’ll be too late at that point.”
Both Diaz and Smith emphasize the current action being taken by Republicans in the U.S. Congress. They cited last year’s Great American Outdoors Act, which garnered bipartisan support for the annual $1.9 billion the act would provide for maintenance of America’s national parks and to conserve the American landscape in a proactive manner.
The House GOP recently formed a Republican-led group on climate change.
Legislation on climate change, such as the Climate Action Now Act, is also frequently decided along party lines. The 2019 House legislation passed with only three Republican votes. There were 197 Republican representatives present. The legislation was centered around the U.S.’s participation in the Paris Agreement.
The international treaty designed to limit carbon emissions – 15% of which comes from the U.S. – faces frequent opposition by conservative voters and politicians, even those who agree with the legislation’s sentiment on climate change.
Republicans like Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee worried reentering the Paris Agreement in 2021 would “cost American jobs and force households and small businesses to pay higher utility bills.”
The economic consequences of climate policy are of significant concern to many young Republicans. Donahue corroborated this point, stating that “we need to be worried about the economic impact of our decisions as well,” and noting that policies targeting fossil fuels would disproportionally impact the lower class.
“You think the guys driving a Lamborghini are getting hurt?” he said. “No—it’s the person taking the bus.”
Still, young Republicans like those at the Conservative Climate Rally believe the conversation on climate change can only be solved through compromise.
“Republicans bring a different perspective and different solutions to the table that need to be taken into account,” Courtney Hope, the ACC’s Climate Rally College Republican National Committee representative, said. “Floods and hurricanes don’t discern between Republicans and Democrats, so no one wins if we can’t work together for positive change.”