Energy & Environment

On Earth Day, a Case for Conservative Environmentalism

(Eachat/Getty Images)
Conservatives often roll their eyes on this ‘holiday.’ Instead, they should be proud that conservative environmentalism is superior to the Left’s performative activism.

‘Climate action now” is the rallying cry of many in my generation. Many of us, myself included, accept what science tells us: that we are inheriting a world where our health, livelihoods, and future families are threatened by rising sea levels and warming temperatures. What we do not accept is inaction, which is why millions of us are demanding positive steps from our leaders.

Typically, such enthusiasm is associated with the Left, as was the case in the 2020 election, when climate change was a major factor explaining young people’s support for Joe Biden. As a result, conservatives tend to downplay environmentalism, and to roll their eyes at anyone who so much as notes Earth Day. But this is a mistake. Conservative environmentalism is not only real and legitimate, but also provides more hope for the future of the planet than its left-wing variety. Take it from me: Climate change is the reason I became a conservative.

My political journey started in Seattle. The city is nestled between the Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountain Range, with places to hike, fish, and ski just minutes away. It’s hard to grow up in a place like that without falling in love with nature. From an early age, my family taught me that as we enjoyed the environment, we also had a duty to protect and to care for it. And as I learned about climate change in school, I wanted to ensure that my own children would enjoy the same snow-capped mountains and pristine waters that I grew up loving.

In 2016, I had my first chance to act. A coalition of economists, environmental activists, and politicians — Democrats and Republicans — put a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the ballot in Washington State. By taxing carbon pollution, and then using the resulting revenue to lower taxes on working families and businesses, Initiative 732 would propel Washington toward a greener economy and place my home state at the forefront of national climate action. Then a sophomore at the University of Washington, I decided to spend my summer knocking on doors and making phone calls to convince my fellow Washingtonians to vote “YES” on I-732.

At that time, I identified as liberal. My family went to the farmers’ market on Saturdays, listened to NPR on Sundays, and the only Republican we saw regularly was Stephen Colbert’s parody of conservatism on The Colbert Report. And on climate policy, I supported the party that accepted the science. Nevertheless, the fact that I-732 had garnered bipartisan support helped convince me that it was the right policy at the right time.

While election night 2016 was altogether surprising, what shocked me most was that I-732 lost, earning only 41 percent of the vote — compared with Hillary Clinton’s 52 percent. In solidly blue, eco-minded Washington State, fossil-fuel corporations and climate-denying Republicans couldn’t be blamed for the climate initiative’s failure.

So who was to blame? In the months leading up to the election, a who’s who group of environmental organizations and climate leaders, including the Sierra Club, Bill McKibben’s, and Washington governor Jay Inslee, had joined together to oppose I-732, leading to its defeat. They told voters, “We can’t afford to get climate policy wrong.”

After the election, in learning more about the politics of climate change, I realized that liberal climate leaders had repeatedly decided that they could afford to make the perfect the enemy of the good. The Sierra Club lobbied against nuclear power, America’s greatest source of clean energy. Green groups dismissed carbon capture, a technology that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and crusaded against natural gas, the cleaner fuel that has helped the United States lead the world in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. What confused me most, even more than liberal climate leaders’ backward policies, was that their appetite for actionable solutions shrank at the same time that their rhetoric became more apocalyptic.

The voices that dominated the climate dialogue didn’t represent me. My passion for protecting the environment came from my love of my home and sense of personal responsibility — not from anger toward corporations or politicians. I saw businesses and entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, already creating the green jobs and clean economy that liberal politicians promised. I realized that calls for radical change and revolution were at best empty and at worst dangerous, and that instead, addressing climate change required steady, incremental progress.

In 2017, I joined a new group with a new approach: the American Conservation Coalition. The students at ACC focused on positivity and solutions, rather than anger and hysteria. They sat down with members of Congress and urged them to support market-based policies and bipartisan legislation. They were effective, they loved the environment, like I was raised to, and they were conservative.

The conservative approach to climate action is different. Conservatives want to conserve our environment, not transform our society. We want to put rural communities on the frontlines, rather than on the wrong end of climate solutions. Instead of creating more regulations, making it harder to build the wind farms and nuclear plants America needs, we want to cut red tape to unleash the green economy. And rather than waiting for the perfect solution, we’re focused on the real solutions right in front of us.

Today, climate change is at the forefront of American politics largely because of the activism of millions of passionate young people. Now, we must take action. But instead of looking to the same failed climate leaders on the left, Americans hungry for progress should look to the right. Since I-732 failed in 2016, greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to rise in Washington State under liberal climate leadership. I’m a conservative because my generation can’t afford to wait for the perfect climate policy, and neither can our planet.


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