The New Climate Change Evangelists Are...Conservatives?!
Former Congressman Bob Inglis is trying to convince his party—yes, even Trump—to pay attention to climate science
On an unseasonably warm night in January, a group of New Yorkers gathered in the back room of a hip bar in Manhattan's Meatpacking district for a screening Merchants of Doubt, an excoriating documentary about fossil fuel industry-funded climate change denial.
That might not sound unusual for a Wednesday night in the progressive bastion of New York City. But there's a twist—the event is being held by and for conservatives talking about evidence-based solutions climate change. The science, for tonight, is not up for debate.
"We believe in accountability."
The meeting looks more like a corporate networking event than a photo of a Rust Belt rally. Suits and chic workwear outnumber Trump tees (official count: one); the crowd of what looks to me like a few dozen (I'm later told 80 people attended) skews young and diverse. A smattering of libertarians and curious liberals circulate.
"We're conservatives trying to show conservatives that there's an exciting answer [to climate change]," says Bob Inglis, a former US Representative from deep-red South Carolina. He served six terms in the House before losing his party's primary to Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Tea Party Republican who criticized Inglis' willingness to reach across the aisle.
According to Inglis, conservatives who dispute the scientific consensus on climate change are really rejecting the left's proposed fixes—"big government solutions." If he can sell right-leaning voters on solutions that jibe with economic conservatism, he reasons, they'll acknowledge the reality of climate change. Over the last year, he's been a guest at conservative events from Arizona to San Francisco. Next week, he'll be in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where Trump won 62% of the vote. The group plans to continue to host screenings across the country in 2017.
"We believe in accountability," he says. Fossil fuels may seem cheap at the pump, he argues, because society is subsidizing its costs further down the line—paying Medicare bills, for example, for people living near coal-fired power plants.
"No more socializing your soot," he says. "Now compete, if you can, with wind, having no subsidy; with solar, having no subsidy; with nuclear."
RepublicEn isn't the only group of conservative environmentalists—nonprofit ConservAmerica has been in the game since 1995. The groups are hardly in lockstep: ConservAmerica's Twitter is flooded with #MAGA; RepublicEn is highly critical of Trump (Inglis was solidly #NeverTrump). ConservAmerica opposes a carbon tax, preferring private-sector tax credits. Both groups tout a legacy of conservative environmentalism stretching back to naturalist president Theodore Roosevelt. Despite their differences of opinion, leadership in both groups speaks highly of each other.
"If conservation isn't conservative, then words don't mean anything," says Joseph Pinion, outreach coordinator for the New York Young Republicans. "To me, clean energy represents the best of what we should all be striving for," he says. "It represents an issue where we should be able to arrive at some type of bipartisan consensus."
He links energy policy to economic inequality—for example, the fact that some poor families pay up to 30% of their income just keeping the lights on. "You have Jim in the suburbs getting a tax credit for the solar panels on his house, while Jamal [in the city] is paying money he doesn't have to heat the front lawn."
"If conservation isn't conservative, then words don't mean anything."
Inglis derides the Obama-era Clean Power Plan."You couldn't come up with a worse plan than the CPP," he tells the room during a post-screening Q-and-A. He's bullish on Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, who once funded climate change denialists and may have downplayed the dangers of global warming. Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, is still reticent to acknowledge climate change's gravest effects, but he says he supports a carbon tax of some fashion and international climate efforts (though his views on the Paris Agreement are murky).
Conversations buzz with conservative keywords: "Responsibility," "free enterprise," and "stewardship," a favorite of eco-friendly evangelicals.But also they also talk about reaching out to progressives. No one thinks this will be easy.
"Mother Earth is bigger than politics," says Paul Cuesta, a member of the College Republicans. "We need to show that we have people on both sides of the spectrum that agree with helping the planet. The only thing we disagree with is how to get that done."
Daniel Kurzyna, who works for a US congressman he won't name, agrees. "This is the next generation of Republicans. It speaks to how it's not just a red-and-blue issue. We're united as millennials."
These young conservatives find themselves in a bind: "You have the Republicans that are going to have resistance in regards for you trying to advocate for [the environment]," Cuesta explains. "On the other end, you have the general population that won't take you seriously as an environmentalist because you openly embrace Republican values."
The attendees aren't monolithic, but most people seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the new administration. In the post-film Q-and-A, someone tentatively asks if Inglis believes in climate change. "It's not what I believe," he says firmly. "It's what the data says." Inglis tells the crowd there's a contingent of environmentally minded conservative politicians who care about climate change, but aren't ready to go public yet.
If the point was to bring more young conservatives to the conversation, Inglis seems to have succeeded. "I've been harboring these thoughts to myself and writing about them in a journal," says John Sweeney, a 30-year-old registered Republican, "not realizing there are other people like this."
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