Benji Backer doesn't come across many climate skeptics among young Americans, regardless of their ideological orientation or party affiliation.
While many older Republicans — and even plenty of older Democrats — don't even agree on the basic elements surrounding climate change, Backer told Colorado Politics that it's a settled question among younger people. And he believes his fellow conservatives need to face that fact or risk losing an entire generation of voters if the GOP doesn't put climate front-and-center.
That's a key sentiment behind the American Conservation Coalition, which seeks to reclaim a conservative stake in environmental issues, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and other Republicans who pioneered conservation and environmental protection movements.
"One of the reasons that we exist is because conservatives haven’t taken a strong enough stance on these issues, and you do need both sides at the table to solve climate change," Backer said.
"It is inherently conservative to care about protecting the environment, and it’s inherently conservative to be pro-conservation, so there’s absolutely no reason for conservatives to be left out of these discussions, either left out by people on the left who don’t want to include them or by the conservative movement doing it to themselves."
Backer, a clean-cut 22-year-old from Wisconsin, founded the nonprofit in 2017 with the goal of bridging what he describes as an “ideological gap in the environmental movement,” which was getting in the way of climate solutions.
“ACC believes economic and environmental success go hand-in-hand, and that everyone should feel empowered to take a seat at the table in discussions concerning conservation, clean energy, sportsmen’s rights, agriculture, climate and much more,” the group says.
“ACC seeks to activate young people who are tired of partisan inaction on the grassroots, state and federal levels — bringing forth prosperous action on environmental issues that impact us all.”
While it isn’t a major player in discussions about climate change, it’s making inroads by promoting conservative-friendly solutions in state capitols, on college campuses and by raising awareness with activities like its Electric Edition 2020 Roadtrip, which took Backer and other ACC leaders on a 45-day trip across 34 states this fall to talk with officials from both parties, and to highlight successful initiatives by local governments and businesses along the way.
"We thought that there were a lot of positive stories that needed to be told during such a divisive and tough time for pretty much everyone here in this country, and I think I can speak for the entire production crew that’s going along with us that we are all more hopeful after these past few months, because we’ve been able to see more solutions than we ever could’ve imagined, we’ve been able to see more unity, and I truly think that the environment can be the bridge to a more unified country," he said.
Backer spoke by phone with Colorado Politics while the group traveled in an electric vehicle through Colorado, near the end of its cross-country journey.
"As we're driving through the mountains right now, it's like, 'How can you not want to protect natural areas?' Everyone thinks that way, yet there's this unnecessary political divide on these issues, and honestly, it's at the forefront here in the state of Colorado," Backer said.
"There's such a strong, rich heritage of the environment here, and it's such a top issue for people on both sides, that people want to be heard on these issues and not just be shouted past."
Backer and his colleagues were on their way to Aspen, where they planned to take a look at the mountain town and its ski resort's climate policies in action.
"They're just one ski resort, yet they're leading the charge about reducing their environmental footprint because others aren't doing it," Backer said. "They're leading the charge because they know they have to for the future of their industry, and they deserve to have their story told. They know, and we all know, that not all the solutions will come from the government level. A lot of them will come from the business side of things, local solutions. But you can't only do it with businesses and local solutions — you need the state and federal government to get on board. And while local areas and businesses are starting to fight for climate solutions, the national political discourse isn't allowing that."
Before arriving in Colorado, Backer and his crew were in Texas, where they'd met with Republicans Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw.
"One of the most inspiring parts about this trip is that we have been able to meet with some of the most hard-right people that make decisions in this country, and when you approach them with respect and understanding and an open mind and understanding why they believe what they believe and where they’re coming from and maybe why they’re skeptical of the current climate movement or why are they worried about it, you can have a really productive conversation," Backer said.
"I think one of the most productive conversations we had was with Gov. Abbott, because we were one of the first environmental groups he’s ever met with, because we actually went in with a respectful approach," he said.
"We want to have his leadership be a part of the solution, and that’s what makes us different — we’re open to working with anybody: Democrats, Republicans, previously climate deniers or climate alarmists and anybody in between, because you’re going to need everybody within that range to be part of the solution."
Public opinion surveys support the alarms sounded by conservative strategists who warn that Republicans need to change their tune about the climate crisis if they want younger voters to even consider GOP candidates in the future.
A national poll released in October showed overwhelming agreement with the sentiments behind Backer's group. The survey, commissioned by the Conservation Coalition with the Conservative Energy Network, found that 81% of likely voters age 18-34 say climate change is "very important" to their vote, with 90% of likely voters in the same age range favoring government steps to accelerate development and use of clean energy.
In addition, 85% of Republican respondents age 18-54 said they would be more likely to support a GOP candidate who embraces an innovation-based approach to addressing climate change, while what pollsters described as a "clear majority" of all likely voters preferred a free-market approach to clean energy production over one driven by government mandates.
“It’s obvious that young voters are hungry for innovative climate change action and will only support candidates who take this issue as seriously as they do," said Quill Robinson, vice president of government affairs for the coalition.
The poll, conducted online Oct. 5-8 by Public Opinion Strategies, interviewed 1,000 likely voters nationwide, over-sampling voters in swing states Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. The results had a confidence interval of 3.53%, the pollster said.
Following the November election, the group lauded President Donald Trump for signing a few pieces of significant environmental legislation — including the Great American Outdoors Act, sponsored by Colorado's U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner — but noted that the Trump administration didn't prioritize climate change and called the president's "rhetoric and action" on the issue "insufficient."
“During the Trump presidency, ACC worked with the administration to promote pragmatic environmental solutions, and we plan to do the same during the Biden Administration," Backer said in a statement. "The planet is too important to refuse to work across divisions, and our mission to effectively address climate change and other environmental challenges continues.”
On his way through Colorado, Backer summarized what his group had learned on their trip.
"The most compelling argument is that solving climate change can bring a lot of hope, it can bring a lot of technological advancement, it can bring a lot of economic advancement, it can bring people out of poverty in all sorts of communities in this country and across the globe, and it can really revitalize communities. It is a hopeful problem and we need to approach it with impatience but also with hope."