Benji Backer likes to point out that he made the most calls for the Scott Walker campaign during the contentious 2012 recall election for governor of Wisconsin.
That’s to establish his conservative credentials, something he does because he’s become a maverick in the Republican establishment for his pursuit of a seemingly off-limits issue — climate change.
In recent years, the 21-year-old Backer has become a leading figure in the nascent movement, driven mostly by recent college graduates like himself, to get the Republican party to confront climate change and protect the environment.
“For too long, conservatives have been anti-everything the Democrats have proposed,” Backer, the president of the American Conservation Coalition, which is funded by a mix of conservative and liberal organizations, told Global Citizen. “Young Republicans are pushing for alternatives."
“We want our own solution,” he added. “When you look at conservatism, it’s based on personal responsibility, leaving the world a better place than when you found it, being a good citizen, and doing the right thing. We’ve been given one Earth, and I want to protect that and I want to do that for God.”
Backer grew up near a lake in Wisconsin and developed a deep appreciation for nature at a young age. This connection, he said, is what drives him to be so outspoken today.
“There were a lot of opportunities for me to see first-hand how humans can have an impact on the environment,” he said.
Polls show that Backer is onto something. In a 2018 Monmouth University poll, 64% of Republicans said they believed in climate change, and 51% said they supported government action to halt its consequences — huge jumps from previous years.
Another poll found that more than 80% of Republicans support pursuing solutions to climate change, and 50% support limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Young Republicans, meanwhile, are more than twice as likely than their older peers to say they worry a lot about climate change.
Republicans in office are breaking with the party line to take up the mantle of climate action, Backer said. These politicians are often from states on the frontlines of climate change, impacted by sea level rise, extreme weather, droughts, and wildfires.
Few states have felt the effects of climate change as keenly as Florida, which faces sea level rise that could submerge coastal cities in the years ahead.
Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) has proposed a Green Real Deal, an alternative to the Green New Deal championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), and Republican mayors have embraced bold climate measures. Elsewhere, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) have called for increased investments in renewable energy.
Benji Backer, 21, is the Co-founder of the American Conservation Coalition in Seattle, WA. Believing conservation and conservatism go together, he launched a group that’s fostering civil dialogue between Republicans and Democrats about environmental challenges. @BenjiBackerpic.twitter.com/WyampSATaU— GreenBiz (@GreenBiz) June 6, 2019
Critics say that many of these efforts fail to meaningfully address the root causes of climate change, and represent business as usual for the party.
The Republican party as a whole has long opposed climate action, and the Trump administration has actively rolled back regulations meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment.
Soon after taking office, President Donald Trump famously withdrew from the Paris climate agreement and dismantled the Clean Power Plan, the keystone climate regulation of former President Barack Obama, which would have made power plants more sustainable. The Trump administration has also weakened or killed rules designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and opened up federal lands and marine habitats to fossil fuel extraction.
Backer said that these actions overshadow a broader trend in Congress of moving toward sensible climate policy.
“I think we’re so hung up on the Trump administration that we forget that there’s a lot of bipartisan action happening on these issues,” he said. “While I don’t know if we can get the administration to be a bigger advocate, I do have a lot of hope that we can get a lot done in Congress.”
Backer advocates for pro-business climate policies. He emphasizes the importance of conservation, and believes that public-private partnerships are the best way to maintain forests, the habitats of endangered species, and water sources.
When it comes to energy, he argues for an all-of-the-above approach, but notes that renewable energy makes the most economic sense.
“We believe clean energy is the future, that it drives down emissions, creates jobs, and is better for the economy, families, health, and everything,” he said.
As far as fighting climate change goes, Backer thinks that government regulations are not the way to go.
“The free market and technology can do more than the government to clean up our air and water,” he said. “I think a lot of things like the Clean Power Plan inhibit our economy. We would not be where we were in terms of climate change without our economy booming but we also wouldn’t be fixing it without a strong economy, alternative fuels, alternative vehicles, more improved production."
As for the Paris climate agreement, a global pact meant to keep temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Backer doesn't think it's the best way forward.
“I don’t think the US should rejoin it,” he said. “It’s non-binding and it doesn’t hold countries like China and India accountable. It’s something that doesn’t have a positive impact.”
Backer rejects the idea that withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement will affect how other countries deal with climate change, even though it was the first global coalition ever developed to confront the issue, and the involvement of the US, the linchpin of the global economy, is seen as essential to its success.
Many of the biggest companies in the US, meanwhile, have forcefully supported the Paris climate agreement and have vowed to pursue its goals.
“We have to figure out a way to hold China and India accountable,” he said. “The past is the past, we don’t need to have reparations for problems in the past, we just have to fix the future. I think it’s our duty, because of the past, to lead and show the globe that we can take the right directions.”