“Conservative ideals are the best way to solve environmental issues,” says Benji Backer, founder of the right-leaning environmental advocacy group American Conservation Coalition.

Backer joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss how conservatives can take back the environmental conversation and advocate small-government solutions to climate issues. 

Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a “good news story” about one way you can honor a Korean War veteran on his 93rd birthday.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

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Doug Blair: My guest today is Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilizing young people around environmental action through commonsense, market-based, and limited government ideals. Welcome to the show, Benji.

Benji Backer: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Blair: Excellent. So, first off, let’s start with your organization. The ACC is described as, like I said, limited government and free market. What does that exactly mean for environmental policy and how does that relate to sort of the left’s view of effective environmental policy?

Backer: Well, look, I mean, the story of our organization really comes out of a belief that right-of-center conservative ideals on environmental issues are the best way to solve environmental issues, and that we are losing this issue in so many ways by allowing the policy ideas to be dominated by people in the left-of-center space.

As a lot of people know who are involved in the environmental space, markets and competition and capitalism and technology and innovation are better in terms of solving environmental issues than heavy-handed government regulation.

And that’s not to say that regulation doesn’t have a place in solving environmental issues. The government does have a role to play, and that’s why conservatives have led on it in the past with some smart, limited government ideals. But it’s really to say that private sector innovation and consumers and capitalism in a fully developed world with a free society can do more to protect the environment because you have a stake in the game.

If you’re a private land owner, you want to take care of your land. If you’re a consumer, you want to save money by lowering your energy costs. If you are a consumer that is trying to figure out how to get to work every day, you want a more fuel-efficient car that saves you money.

So there are ways to have people be a part of the conversation rather than just simply relying on the government to carry a regulation out. And that’s kind of where this conversation is missing.

You have the left of center dominating it and taking it completely to this alarmist mentality where it’s a federal government or international government ideal or nothing. And then you have the right-of-center side, which has great ideas in the market-based realm, completely staying silent. And that’s where we’ve realized at ACC that we need to step up and change the narrative.

Blair: I think you’re hitting on a really important point there, that people want this. I mean, we were just talking a little bit earlier about how there are so many natural resources that we want to preserve.

You’re up in Seattle, I’m originally from Portland, Oregon, and there’s so many forests and mountains and rivers and lakes and all of these things that we want to keep. It’s just we haven’t had as much coming from the right.

So on that topic, we have the free-market argument and limited government argument, but is there any common ground between the two sides? What do both sides have in common that we’re striving to get toward?

Backer: First of all, I want to hit on a point that you just made, which is that when you are tied and you have a personal connection to the environment, you want to take care of it.

And conservatives often, more often than liberals, live in rural or beautiful areas that are surrounded by nature. And so we have the biggest stake in the game, but that also means that we should be having the biggest stake in the political game, not just in terms of our own personal lives, but in terms of politics, we should be raising our voice.

I think that that’s what’s missing, is that conservatives live in the mountain areas and in the places where there are beautiful ranches and farms and forests, and we know how to take care of those areas and we have completely seated that conversation. So I just wanted to finish up that point.

In terms of common ground, there absolutely is common ground. I mean, I think one of the things that we miss out on is that almost everyone in the world that has the opportunity to think about environmentalism cares about the environment.

So in a developed country like the United States, no matter if you’re liberal or conservative, you care about the environment and you want an outcome that is better for the planet than one that is worse for the planet because it is something that most of us at least think about on the back burner at some point during our lives, and that is a privilege to think about.

I mean, if you’re in a developing country, that’s maybe not something that you’re thinking about every day, but because we have been blessed by the national parks and the beautiful mountain areas and coastal areas of the United States, we know that it’s so important to protect. I think that that love for the environment is shared across political boundaries.

I also think that the center left has done a good job of trying to cross over with the right of center side by embracing a lot of conservative ideas around markets and competition and technology and American leadership, nuclear, embracing nuclear, which is something that the far left doesn’t always support. So I think that there is a lot of crossover with the center left.

In terms of political crossover with people on the far left on this issue like the Sierra Club or [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] or other people like that, I think it is hard to find common ground outside of maybe a shared love for the environment because the approach is so drastically different and there are oftentimes very different approaches that they’re looking to have outside of environmentalism.

So they’re trying to figure out how to solve climate change and implement an economic policy that transforms our country. And I think that that’s where the overlap loses any credibility.

And so, as conservatives, we need to start building bridges with people on the center left on this issue, as well as young people who are very apolitical when it comes to political party. And we need to try to show how our values can work better in solving climate change or conservation or whatever issue that the young person cares about most.

Blair: I think that’s a really great point, especially since when I imagined this conversation that’s happening right now, you mentioned [Ocasio-Cortez], I think of people like her and Greta Thunberg and Al Gore, sort of the “We’re going to be doomed in a couple of years if we don’t do something right now.”

I was looking at some of your previous work, and you said conservatism without a climate plan is a conservatism that will never last. And I think that’s absolutely right, but my question then for you is, so how do we get conservatives into that conversation and how do we do it persuasively? Do we pull people in from the center left? What are we going to do to get this done?

Backer: Well, I think it’s an all-of-the-above strategy, not just in terms of policy, which I’d love to talk about a kind of all-of-the-above strategy on climate policy, but in terms of the political strategy as well, we need to get our own side engaged first.

And yes, we should cross over to the center left, which I will talk about in a second, but we need to raise our voice and say, “Regardless of how severe you think climate change is, we can all unify around the need to limit carbon emissions in the atmosphere,” because they have adverse effects on our health, and in my opinion, on our climate, and in a lot of people on the right-of-center side’s opinions, also on climate.

So we need to engage our own side and come up with our own plan that is an all-of-the-above strategy that really leads with American innovation and capitalism in showing how the market can lead.

And I think if we can do that on our own side, then we can start to embrace people in the center and central left that say, “Climate change is a big problem. It’s my maybe No. 1 or No. 2 issue, and I’ve been voting Democrat on this issue because my perception is that the left is the best political party or political movement for my passion for climate.”

If we can start changing that dialogue and bringing those people into our camp, then we’re going to have a fighting chance on this issue.

The top three states in the country in lowering carbon emissions right now over the past four years have been led by Republican governors. The United States under President Trump and President Bush and President Obama without a big climate policy led the world in lowering emissions because of capitalism and innovation in this country. We have a story to tell and we haven’t even leaned into it yet.

So we need to be the party that takes this and the movement that takes us into the future and says, “The left is about rhetoric and we’re about action.”

Blair: I mean, yeah, I think that’s such a good point that it’s not enough to sort of do it. You actually have to talk about it because the perception being the left is the only one talking about this issue, like, I didn’t even know that this was the case about the Trump administration and the Bush administration that we were so effective at environmental policy.

So I guess my next point would be then, you’ve given us some of these examples, so what needs to be done to better communicate these ideas of free-market environmentalism to younger generations?

Backer: Well, it’s a wonderful question. And we really need to start by building a community of like-minded people. And a shameless product from our organization, the American Conservation Coalition, that is what we’re doing.

The left does such a great job and the right does a good job on this and other issues, but the left does such a great job on this issue of organizing like-minded people to becoming activists around their ideals of climate change policy.

And to change policy on this issue in this country, we first need to change culture. That is always how it’s been on every issue throughout American history. We need to change the culture that climate change is a regulatory burden on people to one that is an opportunity to have American innovation and American capitalism and American leadership.

And if we can build a movement around that and build a community of activists to write op-eds, to hold events, to contact their legislator, to start a business, to build a community of people change-makers, then we have a chance to actually retake this conversation. And that’s really important for the sake of the planet and the sake of the politics of it.

So, for anybody that’s listening to this, the first step would be joining an organization like ours, which you can do at acc.eco/membership, but just in general, raise your voice on this issue. Make this one of your top five issues that you lean into and talk to your friends about and talk to your family about.

We have a Market Environmentalism Academy where we have courses about these sorts of ideals. Lean into that. Learn about why these ideals are better in solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Because without having an equipped generation of conservative-leaning people who are climate advocates, we will never retake this issue. And we have to. It is our duty as a movement of right-of-center people and people who believe in this country to retake this issue.

Blair: Yeah. I think that’s a fantastic point. It’s kind of important to learn about it and then be an activist in the sense of, “Yeah, I’m pushing for free-market solutions. Yeah, I’m pushing for a limited government solution.”

One of the things that I also am noticing as we’re talking about this is I feel like a lot of the conversations that relate to environmental policy specifically focus on more of the macro level of it, so it’s like government policy and corporate policy.

I mean, this is kind of maybe a silly question, but is there anything more than just kind of like, “Hey, I’m going to turn the lights off or take a shower that’s less than 10 minutes”? What can your average Joe do to kind of help the planet?

Backer: I love that you asked that because what the political left has done on this issue is completely dilute the importance of individual action. And as we all know, our individual actions add up. It’s like voting or anything else in life. The more that we each do our own individual action, the more that it starts to add up into a positive outcome.

And so, yes, environmental issues are macro issues, and yes, they’re global, and yes, we need potentially big cultural and systemic changes to protect certain areas and change the way we do things, that is always going to be the case on a global issue, right?

But individuals have such an important stake in this conversation and we all need to do it in the way that’s best for us.

The left says, “Oh, you have to walk to work or bus to work,” or whatever, or, “You have to transition to an electric car,” or, “You have to use a reusable straw,” or whatever it is.

Everyone lives a different life and everyone has a different impact on the environment. Some people stay home and work every day and they never use a plastic straw. Some people use a plastic straw five times a day.

So everyone has a different outcome that they have on the environment. So I think it’s really important for us to think through our days and say, “What am I doing that has an impact on the environment and how can I lessen that?” And not just shame ourselves for having an impact on the environment, but to say, “How can I improve?” Just like any other part of life.

And so, for me, what that means is, especially during COVID days, buying a lot of things online, OK, how can I buy things from companies that are more local so the shipping is less, which also can save me money? How can I find a way to shop more local with my produce? How can I make tea at home instead of having to go out and buy tea every time that I need a caffeine break?

It’s things like that that oftentimes save me money, but they also reduce the carbon footprint that I have. And so trying to figure out how, in the different ways that I make an impact, I can lessen it.

So what I would just suggest for people is think through your day and your normal day and say, “What are the different things that I do? What are the different things that I purchase? Where are the different places that I go? And how can I lower that impact?” Because if you just think that through, you will constantly find more innovative ways to do it, and it does add up and make a difference.

Blair: I think that’s a fantastic reframing of the issue. I think that it is important to focus on the individual and their circumstances and how they can specifically affect the environment.

Well, Benji, we’re running a little low on time, but I wanted to give you sort of a last opportunity to highlight two or three points that you wanted our listeners to take away from this. And then what can conservatives really do to effectively get involved in our environmental politics?

Backer: I guess the main takeaway that I want people to have is to lean in, lean into this issue. If this issue has scared you or you feel like the left just owns it and that it’s not even worth breaking into, or you don’t know anything about it because you’ve been shying away from it, lean into it and find a path that you think is really interesting.

If you live in rural America and you really enjoy the hunting and angling in your area, figure out a way to tie that to your environmental activism. If you live in an urban area and you know a lot of young people who care about this issue, figure out how you can influence them about how markets can make a big impact on our environment.

So try to figure out how you can lean in in your own personal capacity. And the most effective way to do it is to become part of our movement. And I’m not just saying ACC, I mean the broader conservative environmental movement.

Join this community of people who are starting to change the culture of environmentalism and change the narrative that conservatives don’t care about the environment and that conservative values don’t work in terms of driving down emissions or protecting our public lands or protecting our wildlife and our beautiful spaces here in the United States and abroad.

So join our membership program. It’s a really easy way to get involved. It’s free: acc.eco/membership. We also provide a free educational academy for people who want to learn about these ideals, kind of like [The Heritage Foundation] has, which is called our Market Environmentalism Academy, which is found at marketacademy.eco.

We’ve got a lot of resources and we would love to be helpful in kind of changing your idea of how you can fight for this issue and how your individual stake in this conversation is more important than ever as we come to a juxtaposition of: Will the left have this issue for the rest of our days and find terrible policy approaches, or will we retake this and save our planet and save our movement?

Blair: Perfect. Great advice, Benji. I really appreciate it. Well, again, that was Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition. We will be including links to all of those resources he mentioned in the show notes. But again, Benji, thank you so much.

Backer: It was a pleasure. Thanks so much for the conversation.