A conservative’s fight to bring climate change back into the GOP’s agenda: a conversation with Benji Backer


Photo credit KING-TV

Benji Backer testifies before the House of Representatives.

The American political climate has experienced an increasing polarization between political parties, evident in the divide between Republican and Democratic stances on climate change. A recent poll from NPR revealed that Democratic voters ranked climate change as the most important of 12 issues, while Republican voters ranked the issue last. 

But there is also a divide between older and younger Republicans on the issue. A growing number of young Republicans, specifically Millennials and Gen Zers, think that the government is doing too little about climate change, according to the Pew Research Center.  

Among these young conservatives is Benji Backer, the founder of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), a nonprofit organization pushing for bipartisan climate change policies. Last year, Backer testified along with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to the House of Representatives, the only conservative to do so. Two weeks before the election, I spoke with Backer, who had passed through Atlanta on Oct. 15 on his Electric Election Roadtrip, a 45-day trip across the country in a Tesla X to meet with elected officials, environmental activists, and business leaders. During our conversation, we discussed his organization, environmental policies, and how we should look at the issue of climate change on the way to the next stop of his road trip.


What is the mission of the ACC, and what are you trying to do as a climate activist?

The ACC was founded to bring conservatives back into environmental conversations. We believe that climate change is an incredibly important issue, but it needs to be solved through a more pragmatic and solutions-oriented approach, so we’re building a grassroots movement of people that feel the same way across college campuses and within their local communities. I believe that climate change is not a partisan issue—it’s one that needs to be solved by both sides of the aisle. If we want to get something done, we need to have conservatives at the table, and the ACC has been pushing that forward through the values of the market and limited government.


What was your first encounter with climate change? How have your views on environmental activism shifted over the years? When did you decide you wanted to start the ACC?

I became active in politics when I was in middle school. My love for politics comes from the knowledge that I as an individual can make a big difference in a robust and productive way, and you’re seeing that now in issues like race and climate change, where high schoolers and college students are actually dictating the way America is looking at  these issues. Because I have conservative values, I was active in conservative politics, but I was frustrated with how politicized environmental issues had come. I was frustrated with how many people see it as “liberals equal environment, conservatives equal hating the environment,” and that was a dichotomy that I wanted to get rid of. The ACC has been pushing the idea of fixing the issue from being a partisan one to one that is focused on solutions instead of politics—a movement that transcends politics. We have the time to fix this issue, but we need more people to actually be involved in the process to make that happen, and so alongside millions of other young people, I decided I wanted to be part of that change.


What do you hope to learn and accomplish from your Electric Election Roadtrip? What was the inspiration behind it?

The Electric Election Roadtrip was inspired by the fact that we are in the midst of a divisive election and COVID, and there’s not a lot of hope in people’s minds right now. But there’s a lot of amazing action happening on climate change by local communities and by the business community that deserves to be told. Of course, we need to replicate this action and do more of it, but we wanted to start telling those stories for people and showcasing the power of the marketplace, the power of innovation, the power of technology in solving climate change. We wanted to show people that even in an unlikely place like South Dakota or Wisconsin, there’s a lot of incredible initiatives taking place to solve environmental challenges. If we can all come together as a country and understand the different vocalities, the different ways of solving these challenges, I believe that we can actually solve climate change within our lifetime. The Electric Election Roadtrip is also focused on showing that across the country, despite political differences, people are willing to start having these conversations. We interviewed some of the most conservative and liberal people, some of the most rural people, some of the most urban people. From this, we’ve come to the conclusion that this issue can be solved, and it will be solved through the innovators that are in all of these communities that we’ve visited. It’s been really inspiring.


What policies do you think are especially effective or ineffective in fighting climate change, and how is that similar or different to the policies of our current administration or policies that have been proposed, such as the Green New Deal [the Green New Deal is a proposed package of legislation sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) that aims to address climate change].

We need to have more incremental approaches to solving climate changes, incremental as in a lot of small and medium steps all the time. And the reality is, the way that Georgia deals with climate change is very different from the way that a state like Washington or Montana deals with it, so we can’t have the same policies for different parts of the country and expect everything to change. That’s why I’m skeptical of policies like the Green New Deal because it is so nationally focused and top-down. What we’re learning right now on the Electric Election Roadtrip is that these different states all want to do something about climate change, but they all have different ways of going about it—they have different technologies, different innovations, different local solutions, different energy sources, different politics around the issue. What we found is that you have to start local, start with businesses and see if they can help tackle it, then scale from there. So, the federal government definitely has a role, and they should be putting together policies, but we need to focus more on local solutions as well as technology and innovation because we do not have all the solutions to fighting climate change right now. We do not have all the technology, so we need to continue innovating and moving in the right direction. In Congress, what frustrates me is their inability to get anything done on the issue. If we take a more incremental approach, we can begin by taking steps in the right direction, then make bigger and bigger steps as the years go on. By doing this, we can make a big difference.

As to President Trump’s environmental policies, his regulatory rollbacks have been harmful for the environment, but it’s more complex than saying that they’re all bad or all good. There are certain regulations that actually inhibit the ability to reduce emissions—whether that’s regulatory structures that don’t allow new technologies to be deployed, or regulations that don’t allow businesses to continue innovating. Whenever there’s a regulatory rollback, I think we need to look at it one by one and ask, “was this a good decision for the environment?” We should not automatically assume that all regulations are good for the environment, but we need to hold him accountable when those regulations are good for the environment and he’s rolling them back unnecessarily. But there have been a lot of bipartisan bills in Congress that have been passed to improve climate change in this country, and I think that’s where the focus should be.

There are four areas that we think can really solve the climate crisis, and the first is energy and innovation. All energy sources need to focus on innovating to lower emissions—not just solar and wind, but nuclear and natural gas and even the oil and gas industry. They need to lower their environmental impact while we’re still utilizing their resources, so all sources of energy need to innovate and become more environmentally friendly. We also need to have natural solutions—we need to plant more trees, we need to restore more wetlands. The next one is infrastructure. We need to modernize America’s infrastructure so that we can focus on having more efficient forms of transportation or clean roads and buildings that actually do make a huge impact on the environment. And the last component is the global aspect of climate change, and how this isn’t just an American problem—actually, America led the world in reducing emissions in 2019. We need to be focused on solutions in the United States that can be scaled to other countries. Ultimately, we can’t be silent or missing from the global conversation—we need to be a part of it.

If we take this approach, you can see that the solution isn’t going to come from one or two policies. It’s going to come from a lot of policies in all levels of government, from the local level, to the state level, to the national level, and also from the private sector.


What is the best way to frame climate policies and activism in a way that appeals to young people across the political spectrum?

Young people need to stand up and say climate change is not a partisan issue, that we need to have a common-sense conversation on how we can solve it. We need to stay away from fear and stray towards hope. If we can focus on a hopeful approach to solving climate change and actually work toward a positive outlook on this issue, if we can work with people through the positive lens, through the lens of how we can all work together and solve it through a more innovation-based, market-based approach, we will be able to get both sides invested in it. As we’ve traveled across the country, we’ve seen that both liberals and conservatives are open to a market-based, innovation-based approach to solving climate change. If we approach climate change in a nonpartisan lens, and if we understand that everyone has a stake in fighting climate change, that there’s an economic benefit in fighting climate change, then there’s actually a lot of hope in fighting climate change to uplift people from all parts of society. We can work together across political differences. And what young people need to understand is that this issue is complex. It’s not easy to solve, there are a lot of moving parts on it, it is scary, but it’s also filled with hope. Science says that there is time to solve climate change, and based on the way the world is moving, we are going to solve climate change because now, politicians are taking this issue seriously, companies are taking this issue seriously. So young people should really try to band together as much as possible, demand action, but also try to be a part of that action in a positive way and be in contact with every decision maker possible to make this a reality.


As Backer and his team continue to travel across the country, he told me about how meeting with both Republicans and Democrats has given him hope for the future, thanks to the unity he has seen as people across the political spectrum work together against climate change. He stressed that there has recently been both bipartisan and Republican-led climate legislation: a carbon capture bill was sponsored by Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), and Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Joe Manchin (D-W. Va) co-sponsored a bill that accelerated geothermal energy development. And in 2019, Republicans and Democrats formed the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus to focus on climate solutions.

“We will solve climate change,” said Backer. With continued efforts from both sides of the aisle, Backer’s pledge may become reality– and serve as a hopeful reminder of what political unity can achieve.