Can these young conservatives tug Republicans toward climate action?

Why We Wrote This

It is said that young people shape the world in their own image. When it comes to climate change, young conservatives are pushing for a Republican agenda that addresses their concerns – and values.

Courtesy of YCCD
Conference-goers at the Conservative Political Action Conference take a photo with a Reagan image as they visit the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends booth at CPAC 2020.

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From college campuses to Washington think tanks, the ground is shifting beneath Republicans’ feet. The party’s youngest members are tugging the GOP toward climate action.

Polls show that young conservatives are increasingly concerned about the climate and want to see conservative solutions. Republican lawmakers are starting to respond with support for various proposals aimed at limiting emissions, including a carbon dividend plan backed by banks, manufacturers, and energy companies.  

This shift hasn’t yet translated into votes in Congress. And some of the GOP solutions – planting trees, subsidizing technology – fall well short of a comprehensive approach to rival the Democrats’ aspirational Green New Deal. But in the eyes of many young conservatives, the Republican Party can no longer afford to sit out climate policy discussions.

That’s why Kiera O’Brien, a Harvard senior and president of the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, goes to bat for a carbon-tax plan, both at conservative conferences and at environmental events where, as a Republican, she’s in the minority. “Republicans have abandoned this issue to the Democratic Party for the past 30 years,” she says. “As a young Republican, that is unacceptable.”

The red sign on the red-draped table reads, “Stop Socialism. Unleash Capitalism.” For an exhibitor at America’s largest annual conservative shindig, it’s a slogan as truism, as ubiquitous as U.S. flags and Make America Great Again caps.

But the actual political messaging by Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends (YCCD) borders on subversive. At its booth, sandwiched between the Federalist Society and a pro-Electoral College group, smartly dressed students make the case for Republicans to accept mainstream climate science and support a carbon tax as a capitalist solution.

For a party whose titular head, President Donald Trump, rejects the established science and has torn up regulations that restrain carbon emissions, that sounds like a tough sell. And a tax is still a tax, even if the revenue is to be returned in full to taxpayers as a dividend. 

But when Elise LaFleur, a politics senior at Catholic University of America in Washington, drops by the YCCD booth, she comes away impressed. For her generation, global warming isn’t a hoax but a reality to be faced, the sooner the better. 

“It’s a conversation we need to be having,” she says. “Conservatives do care about the climate.”

From college campuses to Washington think tanks, the ground is shifting beneath the feet of a party that has long sought refuge in climate obfuscation. Republicans’ fitful efforts to correct course – and hold onto voters concerned about climate – have largely been eclipsed by President Trump’s regulatory bonfires and cheerleading for fossil fuels. But GOP lawmakers in Congress have begun to support various proposals aimed at limiting emissions, including a carbon dividend plan backed by banks, manufacturers, and energy companies.  

“The question is not whether or not you view climate change as an issue that requires a solution, but what is your policy and how do you intend to reduce carbon emissions?” says Ryan Costello, a Republican and former U.S. House representative who lobbies for the dividend plan.

Courtesy of YCCD
Kiera O'Brien (far right), president of Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends (YCCD), staffs her booth at CPAC 2020. YCCD works to mobilize the next generation of conservatives around free-market climate solutions – specifically the carbon dividends plan – and embolden the GOP to lead on climate.

This shift on the right hasn’t yet translated into votes in Congress. Eight bills have been introduced by Democrats in the House and Senate that would put a price on carbon, according to E&E News. But they have only a handful of Republican co-sponsors, and Rep. Francis Rooney, a Florida Republican who has co-sponsored several such bills, is stepping down this year.

Moreover, some of the GOP solutions – planting trees, subsidizing technology – fall well short of a comprehensive approach to rival the Democrats’ aspirational Green New Deal. When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy unveiled his climate platform in January, it avoided carbon taxes and didn’t set any overall targets for emissions cuts. 

This reluctance to grapple with carbon pricing is understandable, given where Republicans started, says Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank that supports a carbon tax. “Assembling a large coalition is an iterative process. These ideas need to be vetted and understood and stress-tested,” he says. 

“It’s not easy to be a sore thumb”

For activists like Kiera O’Brien, a Harvard senior and president of YCCD, student-led advocacy on climate policy offers a path to prod Republican leaders off the fence. She’s tired of being asked by left-leaning students why conservatives are ignoring the climate crisis. She also knows that at partisan events like last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), critics might spy a sellout to the left’s climate agenda.  

“It’s not easy to be a sore thumb in the Republican Party saying, ‘We need a solution,’” she says.

But it is getting easier, says Alex Flint, executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions, a conservative, pro-carbon-tax group that works on Capitol Hill, far from the grassroots foment at CPAC. In 2018, when he met with 82 Republican members of Congress, all but one acknowledged climate change was a reality, even though “they weren’t having that conversation publicly,” he says.

In 2019 “that conversation went public,” he says. GOP lawmakers “are now beginning to explore what are the policies they can embrace to address it, and what are the politics of those policies. Because they have to understand both.” 

Polls show that young conservatives are increasingly concerned about the climate and want to see action. In a Pew survey last October, more than half of millennial and Generation Z Republicans said the government wasn’t doing enough on climate, compared with 31% of boomers and those older. Still, a partisan divide remains: Among Democrats the overall share was 90%, compared with 39% for Republicans. 

And while voters express concern, the saliency of climate varies. In surveys taken over the past decade by Yale and George Mason universities, the share of Republicans who said global warming should be “a very high priority” for the federal government never broke 10%; among Democrats it rose from 20% in 2010 to 48% in 2019. 

Growing up in Alaska, which is warming faster than the rest of the continental United States, Ms. O’Brien could see the effects of climate change. She also warmed to the idea of a dividend from carbon taxes since Alaska has returned some of its oil wealth this way for decades; Ms. O’Brien’s parents saved their annual checks to help pay for her college tuition. 

That’s why she goes to bat for a carbon-tax plan at CPAC, as well as at environmental events where, as a Republican, she’s in the minority. 

Beyond belief

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Heartland Institute, a climate-denial group that is a perennial at CPAC, pushing a free-market vision of abundant fossil fuels. This year the Chicago-based group hosted Naomi Seibt, a German teenager and “climate realism” YouTuber, seeking to counter the reach of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl turned climate icon. 

The event for Ms. Seibt was barely a quarter full, though, and a modest Heartland booth in the exhibit hall was similarly becalmed. (YCCD and Heartland were both CPAC sponsors.) 

The YCCD booth saw plenty of foot traffic, including young attendees who wanted selfies with the life-size cutouts of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush that bracketed the table. In Ms. O’Brien’s eyes, both presidents are reminders that Republicans can lead nationally and internationally on climate policy.

Some older attendees took offense. “You believe in climate change? That’s nuts,” a middle-aged man told a YCCD volunteer, who calmly tried to explain the science behind the policy. “You’re just taking what the media says,” the man scoffed, claiming that NASA data showed three years of falling global temperatures (in fact, 2019 was the second hottest year recorded, after 2016).

Ms. O’Brien says she’s not trying to convert older climate skeptics. Her goal is to find young conservatives interested in pursuing bipartisan solutions to a self-evident problem. 

“Republicans have abandoned this issue to the Democratic Party for the past 30 years. As a young Republican, that is unacceptable,” she says. 

Mr. Costello, a two-term representative from Pennsylvania who stepped down in 2018, says that Democrats may be out front on climate but they’re divided on what to do. “The Democrats have not unified around a particular solution and nor have Republicans. What I’d like to see is Republicans unify around this solution,” he says, referring to carbon dividends. 

How long that takes, and whether success ultimately hinges on a change in the White House, is unknowable. Analysts say the current jockeying may not bear fruit until the next Congress. 

Mr. Flint, a former staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has a theory of change. “Politicians in a democracy are not necessarily leaders,” he says, noting that scientists and economists have led on climate, and corporations have joined them. Elected officials, like ordinary voters, have been slower to grasp the policy challenge. 

“In a democracy, maybe it’s good that politicians wait until there’s a consensus among voters for change. And what’s happening now is there is increasingly a political imperative to take action.” 

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