How John McCain and a cabin in the woods inspired an environmentalist

Why We Wrote This

To spur action, progressive voices of warning on climate change have heightened the alarm. Benji Backer wants young conservatives to know that there’s room in the conversation for them. 

Hallie Golden
Benji Backer, a senior at the University of Washington in Seattle, grew up in Wisconsin loving his grandparents' cabin in the woods. His passions for both the outdoors and for conservative politics combine in his nonprofit, the American Conservation Coalition.

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Remember that Republican President Theodore Roosevelt established national parks, and the Environmental Protection Agency was created under Richard Nixon? While the GOP is largely seen as at odds with environmentalism, that hasn’t always been the case. Benji Backer, college senior and present-day conservative environmentalist, is working to bring like-minded young people back into the conservation discussion. He’s been speaking across the country as the founder and president of the American Conservation Coalition, which has members on 200 college campuses.

Mr. Backer disagrees with activist Greta Thunberg’s darker view of climate change because he thinks it could turn people away from the fight. But he believes the left and right can work together to tackle the crisis. “We all have our own roles to get people engaged in this issue in a way they haven’t been before,” says Mr. Backer. “And whatever gets us to the final results of climate action is all that matters.”

Benji Backer stood in front of 100 college Republicans at the University of Central Florida and asked for raised hands from those who consider themselves environmentalists. Everyone held up an arm.

Then came the follow-up question at the College Republican State Convention last month: “Do you guys know what the conservative environmental platform is?” The hands went down. 

Mr. Backer went on to talk about the role of markets and capitalism in a greener future, bringing local hunting and fishing communities into the conversation, and looking to innovation and technology for environmental solutions.  

He is giving these talks across the United States as the founder and president of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), a nonprofit full of young people working to bring conservatives back into the conservation discussion, so that the left and right can work together to tackle the climate crisis.

Founded in 2017, the group has spread to 200 college campuses. By next year they hope to have 10,000 members. The ACC helps people connect with elected officials to advocate for bills such as the Restore Our Parks Act, but also focuses on teaching the public how conservatives and conservation fit together.

“We’re educating conservatives, liberals, whoever wants to listen, on how market-based, limited government policies are better for the environment; and how if you believe in markets or technology or conservative values … you can also be an environmentalist,” says Mr. Backer, a business marketing senior at the University of Washington in Seattle.

While the GOP is largely seen as at odds with environmentalism, that hasn’t always been the case, says Toddi Steelman, Stanback dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. After Theodore Roosevelt created national parks and forests, Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act, for example.

“I think people … understand that the protection of water, air, and concern for our health is good not just for our children, but if we do it well, it’s good for business,” says Dr. Steelman. “It creates sustainability in terms of what we want to achieve broadly writ – economically, socially, and environmentally.”

Ms. Steelman says Ronald Reagan’s administration shifted to a focus on deregulation to boost business and industry after the recessions of the 1970s. “That rhetoric has just been adopted by the Republican Party since then as part of the party line,” says Ms. Steelman.

Ten-year-old debate fan

For Mr. Backer, a televised debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008 initiated his activism as a conservative, if not Republican, since he eschews the labels of political parties for himself. But he’s had a passion for the environment for at least as long. Growing up in Wisconsin, he enjoyed spending weekends in the woods around the cabin his grandparents built. As he got older, he realized that these two passions “were not correlating at all.” By 2016, Mr. Backer realized there were others just like him, and with a team he launched the ACC.

Mr. Backer says he’s received pushback from conservatives who see environmental efforts as a “trojan horse,” and from liberals who think the ACC is not doing enough. But within the last year, he’s noticed something of a shift.

“More of the left of center people are realizing that you need both sides. And more people on the right of center side are realizing that you can look at these issues within a mindset that isn’t completely anti-conservative,” says Mr. Backer.

An ACC representative at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Dalton Archer, adds, “I am starting to see both locally and across the country student-age young Republicans talking a lot more about environmental issues than you would originally have thought.” 

Mitch McConnell and Greta Thunberg 

Recently in Washington, D.C., Mr. Backer met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s top policy adviser, and in the past had also met with President Donald Trump’s staff, something he called a “work in progress.”

“I don’t believe that our future has been stolen from us,” he says. “I believe that we have time to fix climate change. I believe that’s what the science says.”

That’s where he disagrees with activist Greta Thunberg. The pair met in November when they both testified in Congress. Mr. Backer remarked on her ability to inspire, but with a more alarmist approach that could turn people away from the fight.

“At the end of the day you need somebody like her and you need somebody like me and you need every sort of person in the movement for this to get tackled,” he says. “We all have our own roles to get people engaged in this issue in a way they haven’t been before, and whatever gets us to the final results of climate action is all that matters.”

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