The conservative case for environmentalism

We need more conservative people, like many in Utah’s Carbon and Emery counties, to join the conversation about climate change

Cradled beneath the Book Cliffs mountains is a mineral-dense expanse known as Utah’s coal country. The region, encompassing Emery and Carbon counties, is home to three of the state’s remaining coal power plants. It’s a place few environmentalists have dared tread. 

But as an environmentalist myself, I recently traveled to Utah’s coal country not to finger wag or lecture about greenhouse gases; no, I went there to better understand the lives and communities that depend on coal. And what I rediscovered in the process was a pressing need for conservative environmentalism.

I agree with Ronald Reagan: “What is a conservative after all, but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live.”

And on a practical level, if Republicans cede questions about conservation and earth stewardship; about air quality and water; about public lands and sustainability, then it will be largely Democrats who dominate the discussion. Folks in places like Emery and Carbon counties, who desperately want to be part of the solution, will be left out. 

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When I spoke with Michael Kourianos, the mayor of Price, he notes that I was one of only a few national environmentalists to take the time to visit. The mayor describes how willing and open his citizens are to working on environmentally focused projects. The problem, he believes, is that very few groups or politicians who are aiming to shut down the city’s largest economic driver ever want to talk. 

The people in the region, he says, want to utilize their knowledge and expertise in innovative ways to aid a transition away from coal. They know that their knowledge could be useful in a world where countries like China continue to increase coal production and there’s still a need for them to minimize emissions. To the mayor’s point, it does seem like no one even wants to listen to them. 

The San Rafael Energy Research Center is just one example. While the energy research center has gained little notoriety beyond Utah, the group has coal plant workers shifting their focus toward finding innovative ways to use coal with few or no emissions. They’re testing, for example, how coal might be used for nuclear power or a low-emitting gas. This is happening across the state, where some coal plants are going as far as shifting to 100% green hydrogen over the coming decades. 

Yet, these communities continue to be vilified and silenced because many environmentalists refuse to consider these communities as part of the climate conversation. Hundreds of counties like Emery and Carbon are being left behind across the country, all because too many environmentalists have an ignorance of people they’ve never met, places they’ve never visited and cultures they haven’t tried to understand. 

The solution is for conservatives to become more involved in discussions about how to solve pressing environmental issues in the West and beyond.

Everyone wants clean air and fewer emissions; the debate should center on the optimal avenues to get there. Conservatives can do just that — and accurately represent these left-behind communities in the process.

The right side of the political ledger is ultimately the most compatible home for positive environmental results. Conservatism, after all, is about conserving.

From Teddy Roosevelt doubling the number of sites within the National Park System and Richard Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species Act, and George H.W. Bush setting aside more public lands than any other president in recent history, the conservative environmental legacy is substantial. As presidential historian Craig Shirley has pointed out, it was Ronald Reagan who signed more “federal wilderness bills into law than any other president since the Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964.” 

But it’s not just conservative government actors who advance environmental causes. Competition within the car industry to create lighter vehicles with more fuel-efficient engines has contributed to fewer emissions. This has spurred an electric car race that has General Motors planning to eliminate internal combustion engines from its new vehicles by 2035 — a highly ambitious goal driven more by market forces than government action. This is one of many examples of how free enterprise and ingenuity (inherently conservative principles) have provided us with immense environmental progress. 

There are strong signs that conservative elected officials are retaking their seat at the table, too. Take Utah conservatives in Congress, for example. John Curtis — who graciously toured me around his district’s energy facilities — has been one of the most forward-thinking leaders on this issue. He recently launched the Conservative Climate Caucus and about one-third of the GOP House delegation is participating already. Newly elected Blake Moore has already been at the forefront of commonsense forest management policies and is a member of the Conservative Climate Caucus. Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart are also members of the caucus.

After all, conservatives often live in the areas most impacted by climate change or environmental policies coming from Washington — as farmers, ranchers, energy producers, foresters and outdoors enthusiasts. We care deeply about the environment, but we’ve been tired of the politicization of environmentalism. The conversation has seemingly shifted from relatable, tangible environmental issues to a global conversation with solutions that come across as big government and imposing in every way. 

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John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s “climate czar,” is an example of what’s wrong with this approach. Most people like Kerry (the owner of his own, oft-used private plane) don’t take the time to visit traditional energy facilities, talk with relevant workers or realize how much they rely on these communities in their personal lives.

Despite the frustrations, the people of Carbon and Emery counties are some of the most passionate people I’ve met in discussing their love for the environment. They live and breathe immense environmental beauty surrounding them — like the San Rafael Swell.

In the purest intention of the word, these people are true “environmentalists.” They care for their planet and specifically the nature in their backyards, but they also want to be able to feed their families and not be vilified for working in an industry where they’ve unintentionally had a negative environmental impact. They don’t just want to be part of the solution, they want to help lead it. 

We need more conservative people, like many in Carbon and Emery counties, to join the conversation. If not, the millions of people in conservative America will be losing their seat at the table to a few select cities — and specifically to the federal government.

To make matters worse, the policies that will come from that — like the Green New Deal — will harm the communities that really do care about the environment most. 

Threats to the environment are real — we are facing a dramatic increase in global carbon emissions, our air quality impacted by wildfires is making the West less hospitable, and droughts are causing immense water scarcity concerns. As we’ve seen these and many other issues come to fruition over the past few decades, we’ve learned a lot about the causes. One of the elephants in the room is the reality that carbon production has contributed in a negative way to a few of our globe’s severe environmental concerns. 

But instead of vilifying vulnerable communities that had no idea that their production of affordable, abundant energy would be contributing to environmental problems, we should be utilizing their talents, background and brainpower to come up with next-generation solutions. After all, to solve complicated environmental problems, we need a diverse set of solutions and knowledgeable voices.

That’s where the needed growing environmental movement of conservatives comes into play. 

First, conservatives need to put the “environment” back into “environmentalism.” We should be the movement that focuses on measuring success by what actually works, not what sounds best in a 10-second divisive soundbite.

Second, we need to connect and instill an authentic love for our local environment. Humans care about their own backyard more than anything — and know the most about it. As such, environmental solutions should come from locals. To do this, we can humanize the environmental conversation by understanding where people are coming from — in all geographical areas, ethnic backgrounds and political viewpoints.

Third, we need to be the environmental movement of hope — instead of despair. Solving environmental challenges will herald from local conservation projects, exciting new technologies, job creation and an overall improvement of society. That is the conservative way: seeking innovation and solutions to tough problems rather than propagating a narrative of despair, doom and futility in a bid to shame voters into certain pro-environment policies.

Lastly, we should be the movement of putting American interests first. The United States has the most impressive environmental track record of any nation over the past few decades. We have been able to create the most innovative solutions, consistently increase the protection of our environment and lead the world in environmental progress. The more America succeeds, the more the environment does, too. 

Most environmentalists have looked at the likes of Carbon and Emery counties as the enemy. That must not happen. But to change it we need a robust conservative environmental movement.

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I’m a conservative who is a passionate environmentalist. Knowing the two were often at odds in our national political landscape, I founded a nonprofit organization, the American Conservation Coalition, with my peers in 2017. In late 2019, I testified before Congress with the world-renowned climate activist Greta Thunberg as the conservative alternative, which was our organization’s first opportunity to show the world what conservative environmentalism looked like.

I’ve seen glimmers of hope that conservatives can retake the environmental conversation that we once led. We are the party that lives amid nature, and it’s time we take back the narrative that we are the ones who don’t care about conserving it. 

Benji Backer is the founder of the American Conservative Coalition.

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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