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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Climate power strategy: work with “eco right” and “eco middle”


The left must be open to working with a broad range of people with whom we have some alignment, if we want power:  power to win hearts and minds, elections, and policy.  Our general inability to do this is one of our greatest weaknesses.


The key word here is “some.”  We need to work with people that we don’t agree with about everything, but do agree about enough things that working together can advance our goals. 


A key opportunity for us is the emergence of conservatives and centrists for climate action.  They are staking out positions separate from both the Democratic and Republican climate policy, and we can find some alignment there.


Today we’ll talk about who they are; where there is some alignment; where there ISN’T alignment; and what next steps might be.  I am not an expert on climate matters, conservative organizing on climate, or climate policy: I won’t be getting into the weeds here.  I’ll just be sketching out some general outlines of the players, the issues, and my ideas on next steps.


Who are these conservatives and centrists?


The eco-right


Grist did a story back in 2018 about how “there’s a small but growing alliance of concerned conservatives who want to reclaim climate change as a nonpartisan issue. This motley crew of lobbyists, Evangelical Christians, and far-right radicals call themselves the “eco-right.”


Also, they said, “There’s also a broader, national effort to target American conservatives. RepublicEn, for instance, is a coalition of more than 4,000 conservatives and libertarians pushing for environmental action. The organization hopes that, generations from now, the eco-right will be remembered for leading the United States out of the climate crisis and into the clean energy revolution.”


Alex Bozmoski, now an advisor to RepublicEn, used to be a climate denier himself.  He enrolled in a climate science class as a joke, planning to heckle the professor, but found out that the professor was right.   He then hooked up with Bob Inglis, a former US representative from South Carolina who came out swinging against global warming in 2010 (a position that likely cost him his seat in the House).   They coined the name “eco right” (“a balance to the environmental left”). They founded a group which became RepublicEn.


RepublicEn likes one climate solution best: the carbon tax.  They describe it this way:


“The small-government solution to climate change is simple accountability. Make all polluters accountable for the impacts of emissions by putting a price on those impacts. Sooty electricity, for example, would lose out to solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power—not because government picked them as winners, but because consumers would see that cleaner sources are actually cheaper when you consider the costs associated with burning fossil fuels. Self-interest and good economics would drive innovation—not fickle tax incentives, clumsy mandates or intrusive regulations.”

Perhaps an over-simplification, but we can surely get behind the carbon tax.


The eco-middle


James Tolbert, an engineer, is another one who came over from the dark side.  In 2013, Tolbert was wrapping up work on the fallout from a million gallons of crude oil spilling from the Enbridge Pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan when he decided to switch teams. He traded in his senior position at energy infrastructure firm AECOM for a role as a lobbyist at the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.


The CCL describes themselves this way:  “Our consistently respectful, nonpartisan approach to climate education is designed to create a broad, sustainable foundation to drive climate action across all geographic regions and political inclinations.”


“CCL volunteers are organized into hundreds of local chapters across the US and internationally. These chapters build political support for climate action with a variety of tools, which they use in keeping with their local culture and politics. By focusing on shared values rather than partisan divides, we build relationships with community leaders and with federal elected officials and with Congress, always starting from a place of respect, gratitude, and appreciation.”


The hold an annual conference in DC, where in addition to internal meetings, they “head to Capitol Hill to meet with your members of Congress. You’ll ask them to take action on climate change and hear their ideas.”  They also hold state and regional conferences, as well as what you might call caucus meetings.


Their key policy solutions include:  Carbon Tax, Healthy Forests (various tree- and forest-related actions), Electrification/Efficiency For Buildings, Clean Energy Permitting Reform. 


I imagine we could get behind all these things as well.



Benji Backer/ACC


Another player is a young man (26) named Benji Backer.  He has written a book (published 2024) called The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions For A Sustainable Future.  He is also the Founder and Executive Chairman of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC).   I’ve seen him speak, and he exudes energy and conviction.  While I believe he is misguided on some things, I don’t doubt his sincerity.


He describes the ACC as “the largest right-of-center environmental organization in the country.” For his work with the ACC, he has been awarded the Fortune 40 Under 40, Forbes 30 Under 30, GreenBiz 30 Under 30, and [most notably for us] Grist 50. He is from a rural area in Wisconsin, and now lives in Seattle.


Here's some of what Grist had to say when they named him to their list in 2019: 


“In high school, the Wisconsin native scuffled with his liberal teachers, going head-to-head on jobs, energy, and the economy. It taught him a lot about interacting with people who didn’t agree with him.


In 2017, he started an organization to rally conservatives around climate change. He founded the youth-led ACC, now on 90 college campuses, to spread the word that there is a way to advocate for the environment from the right. “There are millions of conservatives who feel like they don’t have a home on these issues,” he says. His mission in 2019: Bring them into the fold.”


The book identifies many areas where we surely agree, on problems and to some degree on solutions.  They are engaged in building support for climate action among Republican electeds and media, as well as individuals.  Backer seems most focused on organizing young conservatives.


Where is the alignment?


I’ll use Backer’s book as a source for where we might find alignment, though I’m sure there’s some differences among the eco-right and eco-middle, as well as among progressives.


I did notice that, as a product of rural America and an outdoorsman, he seemed a lot more engaged with how climate change affects our wild places and farms than how it affects city dwellers.  Getting together with the largely urban left would help build more well-rounded policy.


I didn’t see any discussion here about mitigation and resilience.  We can’t ignore this, as every year brings more and bigger climate disasters.


I pretty much nodded my head through a lot of Backer’s book.  Some of his ideas I’m paraphrasing. I’m speaking for myself here, of course, when I lay out areas of alignment.


Areas of alignment


-       Balanced solutions require a balance of stakeholders at the table: conservatives, liberals, rural, urban, activists, and business.


-       We need better balance in DC policy between rural and urban interests.  (There are SO MANY policy actions we could take that would benefit country mouse and city mouse alike, like connecting farmers with urban school systems so kids could have healthy, local food and farmers could have income.  Of course, there are times we are fighting for resources.)


-       The Green New Deal, with its emphasis on electric vehicles and renewable energy, has already run into some snags.  It should be re-examined to see how it can be improved.


-       Role of government:  We need more flexibility in certain regulations, like permitting, to make innovation or construction faster and cheaper.  (Conservatives would want a lot more deregulation than we would be comfortable with, but I’m sure we could agree on some changes.)


-       We need more energy independence. 


-       We need to tailor clean energy solutions to local climates, ie solar in Arizona and wind in Iowa.


-       We need to support more entrepreneurs to innovate climate solutions, especially young people. 


-       Greenwashing is a problem that needs to be addressed.


-       Key solutions that are so far under-appreciated:  Forest management to contain wildfires, sustainable agriculture (I would include feeding cows the right food to lower their methane emissions), action on food waste, restoration of wetlands and grasslands.  He also talked about geothermal and hydrogen, of which I know nothing.


Areas where we differ, but some alignment is conceivable


-       Mining minerals for renewable energy.  These minerals are found on US soil, in the ocean, and abroad.  Backer seems to think we should just mine, baby, mine.  I think progressives would agree that we need these minerals, but we also need to find ways to mine as sustainably as possible, to protect people living near and working in these mines and protect the land and water. The minerals are in the US West, often on tribal and federal land, and in China and other countries where human rights are weak.  The ocean mining is potentially very dangerous to the environment. 


-       China.  They are deeply involved in manufacturing and mining, including fossil fuels but also renewables.  They are a frenemy and we need to figure out how to best navigate our relationship in a way that’s good for us, and to move forward on climate action.


-       Banning Fossil Fuels.  The left has taken a hard line on this.  But realistically, we cannot ban fossil fuels before we can meet our energy needs with renewables, and that’s not happening anytime soon.  We need to consider things like at minimum, cutting their subsidies. Given all the damage they’ve done, how can we get them to help pay for the transition?  How can we reduce emissions and pollution from existing fossil fuel production and use?  How can we reduce energy use and increase efficiency?  How can we move ahead with electric vehicles, from cars and buses to farm equipment?


Areas of non-alignment


In order to successfully navigate coalitions like this, progressives would really need to clarify their own ideology and political beliefs.  For example, issues about the economy and the role of government, where we often differ from conservatives, are critical when it comes to dealing with climate change. 


Speaking for myself again, here’s how I see the no-go’s.


Climate policy decided first at the state and local level. 


Backer is big on the idea that communities know best what they need, which in theory, we would agree with. 


But when the GOP is in charge of states, they usually aren’t at all environment-friendly.  They allow companies to run wild, poisoning people, ruining water supplies, waterways, air quality, the land, and whatever else you want to name.   They don’t support recycling, composting, banning plastic bags or anything.  That’s not to say Democrats don’t sometimes do the same, to a lesser degree, when they’re in charge.  The GOP often makes it impossible for localities to make their own decisions. 


Some states and cities do innovate and lead in climate action, and have done so under both Democrats and Republicans, that is true.  Some Federal actions are heavy-handed and don’t make sense everywhere, that is also true.  And regional cooperation has led to some great successes.


It’s also true that some of the toughest issues where the government has to stand up to business have to be done at the federal level.  Successes like the Clean Air Act show that.  We need the federal EPA and Justice Department to get involved sometimes.


I think this issue is tied up with the tremendous corruption and stupidity that you see in our government at all levels. And that’s tied up with the dysfunction of our political system. 


The other no-go: nuclear power


Backer claims that there is a “new” nuclear power that is all safe and great.  Somehow I doubt that.  He also feels that we just have to use it now, to bring down fossil fuel quicker.  Nuclear does seem to be gaining acceptance, and I hope we are on it.


Here is some background on it from CNN.  This month, Bill Gates and his company TerraPower started work on one of these newfangled nuclear power plants in Wyoming.  It uses sodium, not water, for cooling. I don't hear anything about how the waste is less, or less toxic.


The Federal government is taking comments on the plant in Wyoming.   The Feds have also invested a lot of money already in these plants and the new technology, including Gates’ company, apparently.  There are concerns that this fuel could be used for nuclear weapons.


Possible Next Steps


As we are, so are the members of the “eco right” and “eco middle” working on our own agendas.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways that we could connect.  In a sense, we’re all on the same side, since we know that climate change is an existential threat and we’re committed to action.


Any environmental group could just connect on the level of communicating each other’s climate priorities, so they could support them if inclined, which could make us all stronger.  Developing personal connections couldn’t hurt.


With a working relationship established, we could perhaps move up to sharing the solutions we’ve come up with, the reasons for them and the success we’ve seen with them.  We could discuss and see if we could agree on any limited group of actions. 


As legislation or executive action comes up, if we’ve laid the groundwork, we might be able to quickly join forces to help move something we agree on.


There is a fair amount of foundation money now going to help urban and rural organizations work together on a community level, so that could involve support for a bipartisan local or state-level environmental project, where multiple groups have a geographic presence.


Of course I don’t know everything that is going on.  But I imagine finding key people where you could build relationships and trust would be a key early step.


The Farm Bill


The Farm Bill will be coming up in Congress in September and will be hard-fought.  A lot of climate-friendly items are at issue, but are underdogs at this time.  It would be a great opportunity to work together to help get some of them included.


Climate Entrepreneurs


The Biden administration has supported this objective in the IRA and Energy bill.  There are no doubt municipal and statewide economic development groups that could share ideas and resources. 


Campus Groups


I believe Sunrise has a lot more campus groups than ACC.  The Sunrise geographic footprint tends to be blue and urban, but they do have a presence in some rural areas and red states and areas.  If there are places where they both have a presence, I would love to see an effort for the two to engage in some dialogue, though I imagine it wouldn’t be easy.

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