It is no secret the conservative movement in America struggles to attract younger voters. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that only 12% of millennials identify as conservative or mostly conservative. One policy issue that could help conservatives grow their ranks among younger voters is the environment. 

Compared to other generations, younger voters have a strong interest in environmental issues. A youth poll conducted by Tufts University earlier this year found that the environment and climate change ranked second among top priorities out of 17 issue areas. Another Pew Study from last year found millennials and members of Generation Z place a higher priority on environmental issues than their elders. 

Protecting the environment is important, but how we protect it is also important.

To many, the pathway to environmental progress is through more government intervention—renewable energy mandates that centrally plan a state’s energy portfolio or heavy-handed regulations that carry high costs and negligible environmental benefits. These policies not only harm consumers, but they enable cronyism, impede innovation, and fail to achieve the desired environmental outcome. 

We need to make the case to these voters that environmental solutions that harness the power of markets and conservative principles yield better economic and environmental outcomes.

Creating markets, forming cooperative relationships, and relying on property rights to better align incentives that produce meaningful environmental results is the conservative approach. Moreover, freer countries tend to be cleaner.

The Heritage Foundation has outlined eight principles that should guide environmental policy. Called the “American Conservation Ethic,” the principles are an important resource for policymakers and younger generations alike for how to approach environmental conservation.

They are: 

  1. People are the most important, unique, and precious natural resource. 
  2. Renewable natural resources, such as air, water, and soil, are not fragile and static but resilient and dynamic—and respond positively to wise management. 
  3. Private property protections and free markets provide the most promising opportunities for environmental improvements. 
  4. Efforts to reduce, control, and remediate pollution should achieve real environmental benefits. 
  5. As we accumulate scientific, technological, and artistic knowledge, we learn how to get more from less. 
  6. Management of natural resources should be conducted on a site- and situation-specific basis. 
  7. Science should be employed as one tool to guide public policy. 
  8. The most successful environmental policies emanate from liberty. 

Young conservatives want policymakers to use free-market principles when approaching energy and environmental policy. In a separate poll on youth voters by the American Conservation Coalition, 70% of right-leaning participants said we can use consumer demand, market forces, and technology to advance clean energy sources.

Importantly, voters on the right, center, and left prefer markets. The poll found that “53% of left-leaning, 58% of moderate, and 67% of right-leaning respondents want an alternative environmental movement that promotes free-market, limited government solutions.”

One solution would be to promote the connection between environmental protection and respect for private property rights. Owners free to use the property as they see fit, as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others, are incentivized to act as good stewards, caring for underlying resources and preventing their overuse.

People who own property are incentivized to take good care of what they own in order to build the value of their property. Establishing well-defined protections for property rights can result in better stewardship in the U.S. and around the world, and improve the care of everything from endangered species to forests.

Property rights address the problem of the tragedy of the commons, in which shared resources are taken advantage of by users who have little stock in their preservation.

Take a public lake that’s full of walleye that fishers can sell to restaurants. If no one owns the lake, the fishers will catch as many as possible because if Johnny doesn’t catch the fish, Sally will. When someone owns the lake, the incentive is to ensure that the resource can be used productively and sustainably, rather than depleting it entirely.

Another example of a market-based solution to reduce pollution is to use tradable permits. In this system, companies have an incentive to reduce their emissions and if they go above and beyond, they can sell the extra “emissions allowances” to companies who do not meet their emissions reduction targets.

The supply and demand for those allowances sets the price, which gives companies both a price signal and flexibility to figure out the way to reduce emissions as cheaply as possible. This leads to the creation of new and innovative solutions to reduce emissions and lower costs. 

Younger voters want policymakers to focus on the environment. Economically and environmentally, Americans will be best served if policymakers offer solutions that keep America’s core values of private property rights, the rule of law, individual freedoms, and free markets in mind.