For Decades, the GOP Has Fought Against Climate Action. ‘Eco-Right’ Groups Are Working to Change the Conversation

As their numbers grow, conservative climate action groups push for a reckoning, accelerated by younger generations
The American Conservation Coalition, founded in 2017 by Benji Backer, is one of many "eco-right" groups pushing for conservative climate solutions. (Getty Images / Morning Consult Illustration by Kelly Rice)
October 14, 2020 at 5:07 pm UTC

No longer is climate change advocacy the province solely of the left. In recent years, a proliferation of conservative climate groups have attempted to wrench the issue from the hands of the opposition and shore up climate concern on the right.

But the “eco-right” — as the loosely connected groups of organizations and advocates identify — is splintered, albeit amicably. Many of the groups cite the changing tides of public opinion in their origin story, but each comes at climate action with slightly different objectives. 

There are the politically pragmatic, the morally repentant, the politically alienated. There are those trying to convince the skeptics among their political kin — ConservAmerica (“Conservation is conservative”), republicEn (“Home of the EcoRight”) and the catchphrase-less Conservative Energy Network — as well as those specifically martialing young conservatives. 

Each faction has its own method of attempting to puncture the popular Birkenstocks-wearing image of the environmentalist that they attribute to keeping the conservative cohort on the sidelines, but they have one thing in common: the notion that conservation and protection of the natural world fits the definition of conservatism like a glove. 

“The fact that conservatism is regarded as anathema to environmental protection is actually kind of an exception when you look back at the longer history of the conservative movement and conservative thought,” said Quill Robinson, vice president of government affairs for the American Conservation Coalition, which was founded in 2017 to fill an ideological gap in the environmental movement.

Broadly speaking, the movement characterizes the left’s approach to climate action as “bluster,” taking issue in particular with progressives voting against carbon tax legislation and resisting nuclear energy and carbon capture development — which the eco-right views as the options most likely to see traction in Congress — compared with more sweeping proposals such as the Green New Deal and other platforms.

“I see the ‘all talk, no action’ approach to climate change as almost as big a threat as climate denial,” Robinson said.

The political opportunity of a new generation

While many of these groups have existed for years, some have only emerged recently, largely in response to the steady increase in support for climate change action among young people of all political backgrounds. 

Morning Consult polling in August found that 75 percent of Gen Zers believe that climate change is inevitable, though roughly half think the phenomenon can be slowed. While Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say either that climate change is beyond our control or that it is not happening, 59 percent of GOP respondents said climate change can be stopped or slowed, a majority ripe for courting by political strategists. 

Enter C3 Solutions, and organizations like it. Earlier this year, C3 founders John Hart and Drew Bond launched the group as a response to the political unmooring of their conservative peers invested in climate and energy issues. They hope to serve as a “generational bridge” (both are Gen Xers) between older and younger conservatives, offering market-based solutions to climate change beyond the “poorly drafted” Green New Deal: options like nuclear energy, carbon capture and geothermal. 

On C3 Solutions’ advisory board sits former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who was recruited because of what Hart described as Santorum’s history of political pragmatism on other issues in which the left had staked its flag.

Asked if he regrets his party’s attitude toward climate change during the years he was a lawmaker (1991-95 in the House and 1995-2007 in the Senate), Santorum demurred, noting only that he was essentially uninvolved in the climate change issue at the time and focused more on health care and national security. However, what Santorum said he regrets about his party’s conduct is that his colleagues ceded the issue to the left by not taking it seriously one way or the other.

He believes the GOP either should have pushed against the need for climate action with resources comparable to those used by Democrats highlighting the need to address the issue, or else they should have seen the writing on the wall and presented market-based solutions of their own.

“If you’re not going to engage in the battle in a serious way and allow them to continue to build their case while you don’t actively do anything to counter it, you’re going to live with the consequences of your actions,” Santorum said. Whether or not Republican lawmakers personally believe in the reality of climate change is immaterial; what matters more, Santorum said, is what the public believes and demands from their leaders. And that public is changing as each year passes.

A space of their own

The groups started by conservative Gen Zers and millennials present themselves with more earnestness, approaching climate change less as a political project to be won and more a problem that needs to be solved with an urgency that increases daily. 

Painting in broad strokes, these groups wish simultaneously that lawmakers on the right would prioritize climate change to the same degree that young people consistently do, and that those acting on climate change would take a conservative approach to the issue. 

“I think that it would do us more justice as a movement to understand that this divide that we face on climate change is generational first and then partisan second,” said Joe Pinion, a conservative communicator and spokesperson for republicEn. 

This is a generation for whom the reality of climate change “has never really been in question,” said Chris Johnson, managing director of the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends. While YCCD specifically advocates for finally realizing the languishing Baker-Shultz plan for carbon dividends, Johnson speaks about that goal as one small part of the greater project of “shoring up the right flank among young people” in the broader fight against climate change. 

And while that shoring up does not involve “explicit alliances” with those on the left who advocate for carbon pricing, Johnson said they “cheerlead” each other whenever there are mutual victories or their goals align.

The eco-right’s ranks are bolstered by a simultaneous movement championed by the nonpartisan religious group Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. According to its national organizer and spokesperson Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, YECA’s goal is to depoliticize climate change in the church and prompt young people to interpret “politics through the lens of their faith” rather than the opposite, despite white evangelicals’ longtime role as a strong Republican voting bloc. 

YECA has engaged more than 20,000 young Christians since its founding in 2012 in its attempt to wake up their community to the demands of their faith when it comes to caring for God’s creation: both the planet itself and the people on it, especially the poor and the oppressed.

“In other words,” Meyaard-Schaap continued, “people who are being hit first and worst by the impacts of climate change.”  

Contextualizing the president

But an elephant remains in the room. Whether or not the Trump administration has helped or hurt the development of a conservative climate ethos is a matter of debate among the eco-right. While all can agree that they wish the president would argue for climate change solutions (and even acknowledge the reality of the phenomenon itself), some believe the technological breakthroughs that have happened in recent years and the growth of natural gas exports during his tenure mean more than the litmus test of “climate change: real or fake?”

Still, others see the president’s environmental rhetoric as a barometer for how quickly public opinion is moving to demand more climate change conversations. 

“I think that the fact that President Trump went down to Florida to talk about how he was the greatest environmental president of all time signals that in our democratic society, he's picked up on the fact that he needs to say that,” said ACC’s Robinson, whose organization has seen notable growth in the last year. 

But Meyaard-Schaap has seen enough: “I don’t know if we have much to hope for from a second Trump term,” he said, noting that the Trump years have also led to a swelling of YECA’s ranks as the young religious right becomes increasingly disenchanted. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure our climate can withstand it.” 

For evangelicals especially, he added, there is an instinct to mitigate the damage done by Trump on climate “because in many ways, its damage that's been facilitated by the support of our community.” Evangelicals’ relationship with the president has been a fraught one, but in 2016, older white evangelicals ultimately closed ranks and helped put the president in the White House. (Roughly a third of evangelicals in the United States are people of color, a group that has been traditionally more likely to vote Democrat than their white counterparts.)

Going forward, Meyaard-Schaap hopes that every candidate on both the right and the left has “an ambitious plan to tackle the crisis at the speed and scale that it requires, using whatever mechanisms their particular political philosophy allows,” in the vein of the climate change plan that Biden’s campaign released in June (which impressed Meyaard-Schaap). 

Pinion shares this vision of an ideal future, one where elections involve arguing about whether carbon capture and nuclear are integral to the climate solution or whether investing more federal funds in renewables development is the right solution — not whether someone believes in the science of climate change, as moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump in last month’s presidential debate. The question, however, is whether the conservative outlook shifts quickly enough that candidates who come after Trump have no choice but to care about climate change.

“The reason that people pander to racism is because pandering to racism can still win elections,” said Pinion, who is Black and comes from a family of Democrats. “And similarly, the reason why people can ignore climate change, because you can still win elections ignoring climate change.”

Lisa Martine Jenkins previously worked at Morning Consult as a senior reporter covering energy and climate change.

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