Opinion: I’m a young conservative, and I want my party to lead the fight against climate change

The fact of the matter is this: We cannot address climate change or solve any other environmental issue without the buy-in and leadership of conservative America.

Conservatives were once America’s environmental champions. Not that long ago, Republican presidents were carrying out the Clean Air and Water Acts, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, expanding the National Park System and even initiating the country’s most authoritative report on climate change, the National Climate Assessment.

But times have changed.

Many of today’s Republican leaders stoke fear and anger by mocking the most divisive climate activists while claiming that every environmental solution is a radical one. If they’re not doing that, Republicans can often be found on the sidelines and disengaged from the issue completely.

Instead of continuing the environmental legacy they were once known for, they have ceded the fight against climate change to Democrats, putting themselves on the wrong side of history. Not a single Republican voted in 2022 for the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill that is funneling hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds to red states and blue states alike for climate mitigation and resilience projects. And it has cost them: A recent working paper from the University of Colorado, Boulder, found that opinion on climate change was one of the strongest predictors of whom independents voted for in 2020, probably giving President Biden enough of an edge to tip the election in his favor. In other words, Donald Trump’s denial of climate change probably cost him the White House.

The Democratic Party has also alienated voters with calls for an immediate transition from fossil fuels and with the Green New Deal’s top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. For someone like me who grew up surrounded by farmland, the Democratic messaging on climate has felt elitist, condescending and out of touch with a large portion of America’s needs. When Gov. Gavin Newsom of California essentially forces people in his state to purchase electric vehicles by ordering that new gasoline-powered cars be banned within 15 years or Mr. Biden suggests that coal workers “learn how to program,” it can feel as though people’s day-to-day realities are completely cast aside.

The fact of the matter is this: We cannot address climate change or solve any other environmental issue without the buy-in and leadership of conservative America. And there are clear opportunities for climate action that conservatives can champion without sacrificing core values, from sustainable agriculture to nuclear energy and the onshoring of clean energy production.

In my visits to communities from Texas oil country to the South Side of Chicago to cattle ranches in Wyoming, I’ve seen how it’s possible to bridge the divide. Conservatives might have disengaged from the issues over the past several decades, but voters often tell me they’re ready to jump back into the conversation. After all, as farmers, ranchers, foresters or just people who enjoy hunting and fishing, many conservatives have a stake in the health of their environment.

What they’re eager for are solutions that work for them.

In Orangeville, Utah, I recently met with coal workers looking for new ways to utilize coal instead of burning it. This small community, surrounded by one of Utah’s beautiful mountain ranges, expressed genuine pride in exploring options to improve its local air quality and the global climate. People also knew their example could help other coal-reliant communities dealing with the same economic hardships. Showing voters these kinds of examples is far more effective than telling them to “learn to program.”

Liberals often point out that the Republican Party’s ties to the fossil fuel industry have prevented a shift toward climate action, and while it’s true the industry has a history of obstructing climate policy and supporting many Republican elected officials, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Conservative politicians tell me they just don’t want their constituents to have their oil and gas jobs ripped from them. But now that many fossil fuel companies are pursuing climate action faster than the Republican Party, it’s clear there may be a way to keep those jobs while reducing emissions.

I’m hopeful that the party can do more to lead on these issues. Over the past seven years, I’ve met with over 100 Republican federal lawmakers who want to fight climate change. Many still refrain from saying it out loud (fearing their base will turn against them), but some have begun to speak out publicly. The Conservative Climate Caucus is now one of the largest in the House, with nearly 100 members. Republicans also helped pass the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a 2021 law that incentivizes farmers, ranchers and foresters to reduce their emissions with tax credits through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As a member of Gen Z, I believe it’s time for my generation to mobilize around climate solutions that bring both sides to the table — and demand our leaders do the same. Liberals must stop denigrating and abandoning key communities they need to solve the problem, and conservatives must stop denying the problem and take ownership of climate solutions. If the Republican Party wants to expand its coalition, it will need to recruit young voters with a far more pragmatic message.

This environmental movement will look slightly different from what the Democrats have built. We firmly believe fossil fuels must be part of our transition to cleaner energy sources for years to come. So, our movement will aim to improve the environmental impact of all energy sources, not just wind and solar. We’ll also focus on ecosystem restoration and other conservation measures that lower emissions. And we’ll call on policymakers to prioritize permitting reform, reducing government overreach and making it easier to build clean energy projects in the United States more quickly.

We share the effects of climate change and environmental degradation equally across political parties. But until conservatives join in this conversation, much of the country’s ideas, needs and contributions will be missing from the dialogue.

Benji Backer is the founder and executive chair of the American Conservation Coalition and the author of “The Conservative Environmentalist.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.