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The New Green Right

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The New Green Right

Young activists promote a market-based approach to the environment. February 3, 2022
Infrastructure and energy
Politics and law

In June 2021, a group of young activists gathered in Miami’s Bayfront Park for the country’s “first ever conservative climate-change rally.” Volunteers in red T-shirts bustled about as 200 or so attendees gathered under shade trees. The rally was organized by the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), a right-leaning nonprofit devoted to environmental issues. Benji Backer, the group’s 24-year-old founder, strode to the microphone and warmed up the crowd. “Conservatives are reclaiming our seat at the environmental table,” he said. The rally featured several former and current Republican officeholders, including newly elected congressman Carlos Gimenez and Miami mayor Francis Suarez. Backer hoped that the event would show that Republicans are finally taking climate issues seriously. “It is no longer true that conservatives are sitting on the sidelines,” Backer told me in a later interview.

The ACC, which Backer helped launch in 2017, is one of several green advocacy organizations emerging on the right. The movement has a distinctly youthful cast; in fact, the founders of several of these groups launched their organizations while still in college. These “climate conservatives” don’t simply advocate watered-down versions of the sweeping Green New Deal proposals championed on the left. Most are highly critical of the expensive, regulation-heavy policies backed by the Biden administration and Capitol Hill Democrats. Instead, green Republicans seek what ACC calls “common-sense, market-based, and limited-government” solutions to global warming and other problems. While some older conservatives remain hostile even to the mention of climate change, a growing number of Republican lawmakers have begun cautiously embracing the issue.

Over the past several years, a number of bills addressing environmental and climate issues have passed Congress with bipartisan support. So far, most Republican-backed climate initiatives have been modest: one promotes planting trees to help reduce carbon in the atmosphere, for example. But Republicans also overwhelmingly support nuclear power and natural-gas drilling, though they don’t usually frame that support in the language of environmentalism. Since nuclear power is carbon-free and natural gas emits far less carbon than the coal it typically replaces, those two energy technologies have so far done more to restrict U.S. carbon emissions than any of the schemes promoted by progressives. So, whether deliberately or not, conservative lawmakers have a stronger record on climate than they generally get credit for. And more Republicans are changing their stance on the issue.

. . . the planting of trees to reduce carbon in the environment, . . . (Luiz Rampelotto/EuropaNewswire)

The journey isn’t without speed bumps. At the Miami rally, ACC organizers had to contend with a contingent of boisterous protesters. One held up a sign reading “CO2 is healthy for children and other living things.” Another heckled speakers, calling them “RINOs” and “Democratic plants.” Journalists covering the event made sure to showcase the protesters at least as prominently as the speakers. (They made for better copy than earnest Republican environmentalists.) “The problem we saw at that rally was a microcosm of what we’re dealing with in the nation as a whole,” Backer said. The protesters don’t represent the core of the Republican Party, he believes, “but theirs are the loudest voices.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Republicans voicing concern about climate issues risked their political futures. In 2015, 11 House members signed a resolution urging action on climate. Today only one of those, New York’s Elise Stefanik, remains in Congress. But now, some Republicans argue that refusing to address the issue poses bigger risks for the GOP. In a 2019 memo, veteran Republican strategist Frank Luntz—who once advised the party’s candidates to scoff at climate science—backtracked. Climate change is both “a GOP vulnerability and a GOP opportunity,” he wrote. Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Lisa Murkowski are members of a bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. “The days of ignoring this issue are over,” Texas senator Jon Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy has backed a series of climate-related bills, including measures supporting nuclear and green-energy research that President Trump signed into law.

The number of Republican lawmakers speaking out on the issue has grown since the 2020 election. When Utah congressman John Curtis launched a Conservative Climate Caucus in 2021, roughly a third of GOP House members signed on. In the Senate, the Growing Climate Solutions Act—a bill that encourages farmers to reduce carbon emissions—passed with nearly unanimous Republican support. 

“When we started ACC, there were only two or three Republicans in Congress talking about climate change,” Backer told me. “Fast-forward four years, I wouldn’t have expected a House Conservative Climate Caucus with more than 70 members; I wouldn’t have expected Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to champion the issue. I certainly wouldn’t have expected a 92–8 Senate vote on the Growing Climate Solutions Act.” Some of the credit for the party’s new willingness to grapple with climate concerns is due to young activists like Backer. In contrast to the way young progressives have pulled the Democratic Party decisively to the left, youthful Republicans were not a particularly distinct force during the Trump years. But now, the party’s youngest members want to be heard on climate and other issues that matter to them. Many of these activists have just emerged from the progressive hothouse of American higher education. So they are particularly attuned to the need to offer a compelling alternative to the left-wing worldview.

“The far left seems to have all the energy right now, which scares me,” John Olds, a recent George Washington University graduate, told me. Olds is one of the founders of Gen Z GOP, a nonprofit “looking to build the future of the Republican Party.” (The Pew Research Center defines Generation Z as the cohort of Americans born since 1997. Politically, Pew says, the group aligns closely with millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1996, which leans decidedly left.) “Not everyone in Generation Z is some kind of Marxist-in-waiting,” Olds says. “But they care about issues like the environment, student debt, and racial equality. If Republicans aren’t talking about those issues, Gen Z is not going to take the party seriously.”

“The natural divide on climate is not between right and left but between old and young,” Alex Posner, founder of the bipartisan group Students for Carbon Dividends and a 2019 Yale graduate, said. Seventy-seven percent of younger Republicans see global warming as a serious threat; only about half of Republicans over the age of 39 agree (with support dropping furthest among older cohorts). “I have not met a young person who does not at least care about climate change,” ACC executive vice president Danielle Butcher says. “This is a key issue for millennials and Gen Z. For the GOP not to address it would be a huge liability.” Young climate conservatives fear that, if Republicans leave a policy vacuum on the issue, progressives will flood the zone. “Progressive proposals like the Green New Deal might not be any good,” Olds says, “but if Republicans don’t offer any alternative ideas, it’s hard to make the case against them.”

The young activists I’ve spoken to believe that the GOP’s historical reluctance to address green concerns is one reason the party does so poorly with their cohort. In the 2020 presidential election, 61 percent of voters under 30 favored Joe Biden, compared with just 36 percent for Trump, according to a Tufts University analysis of exit polls. “Historically, the GOP has had a problem with women and young people,” Butcher says. The party also has a problem with college graduates, whose long-term drift toward the Democratic Party intensified under Trump—an ominous trend as more Gen Z members move into the voting ranks. “We’re going to be the first generation in which the majority of people have bachelor’s degrees,” Olds predicts.

The Republicans addressing climate issues today are not all throwbacks to the kind of white-shoe Republicans who once embraced moderate environmentalism. The Cuban-born Gimenez, for example, identifies as a member of the House “Freedom Force,” a group intended as a brash, antisocialist answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “Squad.” ACC’s Benji Backer became a minor conservative celebrity as a teenager, appearing on Fox News and giving fiery speeches at Tea Party rallies and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Florida governor Ron DeSantis and U.S. senator Rick Scott have also spoken out about climate risks, as has aggressively populist Florida congressman Matt Gaetz (though his tenure in Congress is currently in doubt due to an ugly sex-trafficking allegation).

Perhaps being in touch with the Republican base gives today’s green conservatives a better understanding of why many GOP voters remain dubious about the issue. Climate skeptics tend to think that global warming is being exaggerated by the Left in order to justify sweeping policies that would collectivize much of our economy. “They see climate change as a liberal Trojan horse,” Backer says. And they note that the activists promoting the most alarmist claims about the climate also tend to advocate the most radical solutions. Many leftist thinkers, such as Canadian writer Naomi Klein, explicitly argue that saving the climate requires an all-out war on capitalism. Some even advocate “degrowth,” arguing that developed countries must shrink their economies and lower their standard of living.

Given such language, conservatives are understandably hostile to grandiose schemes like the Green New Deal plan floated by Ocasio-Cortez or Biden’s constantly evolving Build Back Better bill. Supporters of the Biden proposal like to stress its climate focus. (Salon called it “version 2.0 of the Green New Deal.”) Before West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin shot it down in December, the bill did include $550 billion to “combat climate change.” Some of that money—such as investments in upgrading the electrical grid to cope with renewable energy—might have made a legitimate impact on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. (The $1 trillion “hard infrastructure” bill that Biden signed into law in November 2021 also includes money for grid upgrades.) But Build Back Better’s climate measures were overshadowed by other budget-busting provisions, including universal childcare, paid family leave, affordable housing, and other items on the progressive wish list.

Liberal U.S. leaders often describe climate change as their most urgent priority. Senator Nancy Pelosi recently called it “an existential threat to the world.” Biden says it is “a blinking code red for our nation.” The White House and congressional Democrats almost certainly could have won bipartisan support for a smaller bill that genuinely focused on climate policies. Instead, they chose to bet the farm on a massive expansion of government programs, most of which had nothing to do with reducing emissions. Is it any wonder conservatives doubt the Left’s sincerity when its leaders talk about a “climate emergency?”

With the maximalist version of Build Back Better dead in the water, Democrats in Congress are now hoping to “salvage” the bill’s package of climate-oriented measures. These include money for clean-energy research, tax credits to encourage homeowners to replace fossil-fuel heating systems, and incentives for utilities to use more wind, solar, and nuclear power. (The administration deserves some credit for bucking the progressive Left’s longtime aversion to nuclear energy.) Still, when it comes to climate policy—or even basic economics—both the hard infrastructure bill and the stripped-down Build Back Better plan are bloated and inefficient. Both measures are packed with pork and favoritism. Build Back Better, for example, would raise the maximum federal subsidy for buying an electric car to a whopping $12,500 per vehicle but then stipulates that only cars made in unionized U.S. factories will be eligible for the full payout. That puts non-unionized Tesla—whose EVs outsell all other makes of electric cars combined—at a disadvantage. But it ensures that a healthy portion of the subsidy will end up in the pockets of Biden’s union supporters. Requirements that clean-energy projects must be built using “prevailing wage” rules will also raise the costs and slow the rollout of this supposedly urgent infrastructure.

Both bills also promise to address what the White House calls “environmental justice,” mandating that climate funds must preferentially target marginalized communities. In other words, these measures prioritize progressive social goals over concrete efforts to bring down emissions as rapidly as possible. Conservatives rightly complain that too many progressive climate policies represent this kind of bait and switch: they place huge burdens on the economy—and function as slush funds for favored Democratic constituencies—while achieving relatively meager environmental results.

In 2019, ACC founder Backer and Sweden’s teenage climate firebrand Greta Thunberg were among several young activists who testified at a House hearing on climate change. Backer politely praised Thunberg for raising awareness but soundly rejected the anticapitalist rhetoric that she and other progressives bring to the issue. “Such policies advocate for an economic transformation that increases government control, spending, and regulation,” he said. “Markets and competition reduce emissions far more than heavy-handed regulation.” Another environmental nonprofit launched mostly by college students, Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, makes this point pithily: “Capitalism is not the problem,” the group’s website states. “Capitalism is the solution.”

Many on the left might find those assertions laughable—but since 2005, CO2 emissions have, in fact, fallen more sharply in the U.S. than in most other industrialized countries. And those declines have been largely driven by market forces: U.S. industries keep getting more efficient, while cheap natural gas and, to a smaller degree, renewable energy are replacing high-emitting coal-fired power plants. (Conservative greens point out the irony that fracking, though reviled by the Left, produced the boom in natural gas that has enabled this process.) Notwithstanding Trump’s rhetoric, carbon emissions actually fell faster under his administration than during the Obama years. Instead of hobbling the market forces that yielded that progress, climate conservatives say, we should be developing policies to speed it up. Federally supported research and temporary tax breaks helped the fracking industry get on its feet several decades ago. Today, these activists say, we should be bootstrapping even cleaner technologies, including advanced nuclear power and tools to capture and store carbon.

A number of next-generation nuclear designs are close to deployment but still face regulatory hurdles. Researchers and energy producers are also testing various technologies that harness the energy in natural gas or (less easily) coal, while capturing the carbon that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. The CO2 extracted by these Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) systems could be used in applications such as enhancing oil-field production, or simply stored underground. CCS technology would allow the U.S. to continue relying on the country’s abundant fossil-fuel supplies, while minimizing emissions.

Though climate conservatives all say that harnessing market forces is the best way to reduce emissions, they differ on how exactly to accomplish this. In particular, activists disagree about whether to back some form of “carbon pricing”—a tax on the emissions generated from fossil fuels—or favor other ways to reduce carbon use. Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends supports a plan championed by Republican elder statesmen James Baker and the late George Shultz. The Baker-Shultz proposal would tax carbon emissions at the source, driving up the cost of products and services reliant on fossil fuels—gasoline, air travel, food, and even materials like steel and concrete. But the money wouldn’t disappear into federal coffers; instead, it would be delivered back to the public in the form of quarterly dividend checks. The average family of four would receive about $2,000 a year. According to a Treasury Department analysis, most lower- and middle-income families would receive more in rebates than they would pay in higher energy costs. Upper-income families—who use more energy—would generally pay more than they get back.

In some circles, the Baker-Shultz proposal enjoys strong support. The membership of the Climate Leadership Council, which promotes the concept, reads like a who’s who of America’s political, academic, and business elites. “Economists essentially unanimously say that this is the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions,” the council’s CEO Greg Bertelsen told me. Indeed, more than 3,000 U.S. economists back the plan, including four former chairs of the Federal Reserve. These economists argue that, by incentivizing efficiency and innovation in the marketplace, the plan would drive the biggest reductions in carbon emissions with the least strain on the economy. In fact, by spurring the development of new industries—such as CCS and small modular nuclear reactors—it could boost economic growth.

The plan includes big rollbacks in regulations, allowing businesses more freedom to innovate. And a “border carbon adjustment” (essentially a tariff) would be levied on imported goods, based on how much carbon is emitted during their production. That would prevent U.S. manufacturers from being underpriced by high-emitting foreign competitors and also nudge other nations to cut their own carbon outputs. “U.S. manufacturing is dramatically more efficient in terms of carbon emissions than most of our trading partners,” Bertelsen notes. “The border carbon adjustment would turn that environmental advantage into an economic advantage.”

It sounds good—in theory. But selling any form of a carbon tax to voters and lawmakers is a heavy lift. “It’s got that ‘T’ word in it,” one young advocate lamented to me. That’s one reason backers prefer to call the idea the carbon-dividends plan. In a poll conducted for the Climate Leadership Council, Frank Luntz’s firm asked respondents if they would support a program “that charges fossil fuel companies for their carbon emissions and gives all the money directly to the American people.” When the proposal was described that way, 66 percent of respondents—including a majority of Republicans—said yes. Recently, a CLC poll of swing-state voters found that 70 percent back the idea of a border carbon adjustment. Of course, opponents of carbon pricing will also have a say in how the concept is framed to voters. Some Republicans fear that the proposal’s promise to be revenue-neutral would evaporate once Democrats figure out how to siphon off the revenues for their pet programs. And, while most lower- and middle-class families would benefit financially, some rural residents, including farmers, could take a hit. On the left, on the other hand, the carbon-dividends plan is sometimes seen as distressingly business-friendly and attacked as a “license to pollute.”

Republicans in Washington haven’t forgotten their former colleagues who ventured too far out on the carbon-tax limb—and are no longer in Congress. Former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, for example, lost his seat to a Tea Party challenger after backing an early version of a tax-and-rebate plan. In recent years, two bipartisan House bills based on the carbon-dividends model have gone nowhere. Progressives, too, have their doubts. Carbon taxes were the backbone of Bernie Sanders’s climate plan in 2016; by 2020, he had dropped the idea. Even mainstream Democrats have found that selling carbon pricing to voters is tricky. In a confidential e-mail that later leaked, Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta warned: “We’ve done extensive polling on carbon tax. It all sucks.”

Since a carbon tax high enough to change consumer behavior dramatically might also provoke a political backlash, some advocates suggest a compromise: a relatively modest tax, revenues from which would be used to fund clean-energy research and infrastructure. Ted Nordhaus, founder of the Breakthrough Institute, a nonpartisan environmental think tank, predicts that this might be the likelier scenario. Such a tax “wouldn’t be a major driver of emissions cuts in itself,” he says. “But it would internalize some of the costs of innovation and the energy transition in the same way that we use the gas tax to pay for roads and other transportation infrastructure.”

Bertelsen notes that three main policy levers exist to cut emissions: regulation, subsidies, and market-based policies. Conservatives are wary of heavy regulation and government spending, he says. “But allowing the market to work is an idea Republicans find appealing.” But in allowing Build Back Better to become a progressive-palooza—and strategizing to pass it with only Democratic votes—the White House foreclosed the opportunity to find even a scrap of common ground with Republicans. Not surprisingly, the Build Back Better proposals rely primarily on subsidies and heavy regulation. Rather than empowering markets to seek the most efficient ways to lower emissions, the White House’s climate plan amounts to a kind of industrial policy in which government agencies determine how the energy sector should be structured. Germany’s disastrous “Energiewende” program reveals how burdensome and inefficient such an approach can be. In a two-decade effort to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power mostly with wind and solar power, the country now spends some $36 billion a year. Electricity prices have doubled since 2000. And yet Germany isn’t even close to meeting its emissions goals.

If Republicans win back Congress in 2020, could a more bipartisan—and more market-based—approach be on the table? While vocal support for a carbon-dividend plan remains limited on the right, one activist told me that he thinks that “there are a good 20 to 40 ‘carbon-price curious’ Republicans interested in having these discussions behind closed doors.” Some business leaders are more outspoken. In March, the American Petroleum Institute announced that it would support a carbon-pricing scheme, provided it includes relief from “regulatory duplication.” Some other business groups are making similar calculations. “It might not be visible in Congress,” one carbon-dividend supporter said. “But there’s a lot happening behind the scenes with businesses and think tanks exploring the idea.” Could a carbon-dividend plan overcome political hurdles? Alex Posner, president of Students for Carbon Dividends, thinks that the concept might be a positive for younger voters. In 2020, the group persuaded student-body presidents at 350 colleges and universities to sign a declaration endorsing the Baker-Shultz plan. “At a time when people seem so polarized, we had liberal schools, HBCUs, and conservative schools like Hillsdale College all coming together on this,” Posner told me.

For now, carbon-pricing plans remain a bridge too far for most Republicans on Capitol Hill. But a growing number of Republican lawmakers, including upstate New York representative Elise Stefanik, support an “all of the above” strategy. This includes modest funding for clean-energy research, fast-tracking advanced nuclear reactors and other new technologies, and encouraging climate-friendly farming and forestry practices.

Republicans are increasingly willing to support bills that address broader environmental goals, such as habitat protection, or that straddle the line between traditional conservation and climate action. Colorado senator Cory Gardner sponsored the Great American Outdoors Act, which addresses shortfalls in funding for National Parks and other public lands. The bill became law last year (though Gardner lost his seat that November). In 2020, Senators Mike Braun (R-IN) and Chris Coons (D-DE), both members of the Senate’s Climate Solutions Caucus, introduced a bill backing the global “Trillion Trees” initiative. (Planting trees means that more carbon ends up stored in ecosystems instead of accumulating in the atmosphere.) Trump surprised many when he endorsed the idea at the 2020 Davos conference and in his final State of the Union address.

The Trillion Trees concept is just the sort of tinkering-at-the-edges policy that drives more ambitious climate hawks crazy. (One expert calls the plan “vaporware.”) Some critics believe that the all-of-the-above approach in Congress is just a fig leaf that lets Republicans appear forward-looking without actually taking tough stances. That split is reflected among younger climate conservatives as well. Some, like Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, see carbon pricing as the paramount goal. The American Conservation Coalition, on the other hand, is firmly in the all-of-the-above camp and skeptical about carbon taxes.

Whether or not they support carbon pricing, however, conservatives can credibly claim that their policies have made an impact on carbon emissions. “Republicans have typically been a lot more supportive not only of research but demonstration and deployment of nuclear and carbon-capture technologies than Democrats,” Nordhaus says. And, of course, they support natural-gas development, which accounts for most of the reduction in U.S. carbon emissions in recent years. Carbon-capture technologies and next-generation nuclear plants could be crucial to future declines. (The wind and solar schemes championed by Democrats won’t work without large contributions from such sources of dependable power.) Though not all conservatives would describe them that way, “these are demonstrably climate policies that have brought enormous emissions benefits,” Nordhaus says.

. . . and new technologies, such as carbon-capture machines, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it under the ground. (Climeworks/Cover Images)

With Republicans poised to regain the House—and perhaps even the Senate—in the 2022 midterm elections, a bipartisan approach to climate policy will necessarily be back on the table. After all, even during the polarized Trump era the two parties managed to agree on a handful of modest environmental bills. A Republican-led climate agenda might include reforming the endless environmental-review process that delays crucial infrastructure, or fixing the byzantine regulations holding back new nuclear reactor designs. At the same time, even partial control of Congress would give Republicans the ability to block Trojan-horse proposals that use climate concerns as cover for a progressive social agenda. “We’re not going to just write a blank check to anything the Left says is climate-related,” one advocate told me. But to counter expensive, regulation-heavy plans from Democrats, Republicans will need to make a stronger case for their own free-market policies. They can start by pointing to the reality that—unlike progressive promises to build a “green economy” virtually overnight—these market-based approaches are already working.

Top Photo: The conservative green agenda includes emissions-free nuclear energy, . . . (Allkindza/Getty Images)

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