WASHINGTON, D.C. — The other day a Wisconsin transplant now living in Seattle walked into a coffee shop. The clean-cut 20-something young man, with blond hair combed neatly to the side, approached the counter ready to pay for his beverage. He wore a shirt boldly pronouncing: “Kindness is nonpartisan.”
“The lady at the front (counter) ... was like, ‘I like your shirt. Are you active in politics?’
“‘Yeah, actually I am,’” he said.
‘Well, you must be a Democrat then,’ she said.
“‘Well, actually no. I’m actually a conservative,’” said Benji Backer, recounting his experience for an audience gathered at the National Press Club Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Backer, founder of the American Conservation Coalition, wants to bridge the environmental divide between Republicans and Democrats to focus on conservation and stewardship of the Earth.
It could be its own T-shirt: “The Earth is nonpartisan!”
But the challenge ahead came clearly into focus in that Seattle coffee shop, once he confirmed that he was a politically active conservative living right there in the heart of one of the nation’s most progressive, democratic strongholds.
“You could see her body just viscerally react. It was like I had just told her that I hated her family. It was wild. And I basically had to unpack it because she was still ringing me up — ‘but I do environmental work and I’m not wild and crazy,’” he said to her. “I shouldn’t have to do that. … That’s unacceptable. But you feel that way.”
He continued: “I live in a state where if I say I’m conservative automatically you’re a climate denier. And if I’m active on climate, then I’m just a shill for something. It is frustrating.”
Backer was one of three participants in a panel discussion convened by the Deseret News to “elevate” the national discourse, in this case on the topic of our changing climate. The task is twofold: help Republicans accept that the environment and Earth stewardship can be a conservative cause. And secondly, convince Democrats and those same Republicans that there is common ground in protecting the Earth for our children, grandchildren and all who will follow.
Congressman John Curtis, R-Utah, who also joined the panel discussion, is the founder of the Conservative Climate Caucus in Washington. Remarkably, 75 House Republicans are now a part of this caucus, evidence of a strong desire to claim environmentalism as a cause worthy of conservatives. Curtis, formerly mayor of one of the nation’s most conservative U.S. cities — Provo, Utah — represents Utah’s 3rd Congressional District in Washington.
“I say to my friends on the left, stop asking the question about climate. And I say to my friends on the right start answering it, it’s not that hard,” said Curtis. “You have no credibility if you say the climate is not changing and man’s had no influence on it. ... Is it possible that decades and decades and decades of the Industrial Revolution have had some impact on the climate? Yes. OK, you’re there. We’ve got to start answering the question as conservatives.”
Curtis went on to say that it was vital to include the word climate in the Conservative Climate Caucus to gain credibility with those across the aisle. Otherwise, the group would not be taken seriously. But it’s a starting point. In the current political environment, moderate Republicans and Democrats must find language that won’t end the conversation before common-ground solutions can be found.
“If you say ‘climate’ to a room full of Republicans it is no different — think about this — than saying ‘the wall’ to a room full of Democrats. Their chest tightens up. All they hear is Donald Trump agenda. If you say climate to a Republican all they hear is Green New Deal ... or Al Gore. ... It is an off-ramp every time for people and that’s a very important thing to change,” Curtis said.
Third on the panel was Hannah Downey, policy director for PERC — The Property and Environment Research Center. This nonpartisan group is dedicated to free market environmentalism. Based in Bozeman, Montana, it uses research to preserve not just water and land, but those who make their living and recreate on water and land.
Is her life in conservative Montana actually different from Backer in Seattle?
“That’s an excellent question. I think to the congressman’s point, words really matter on this, and it takes me back to a bigger study done on rural attitudes toward environmentalism,” she said, having flown in from Bozeman where neighboring mountains had just received 2 feet of fresh snow.
“If you went to farmers and ranchers and asked, ‘Are you a climate advocate?’ They would probably say, ‘I don’t want to touch that.’ But, if you ask, ‘What are the most important issues that you’re dealing with?’ it will be soil health, water quality and quantity, wildfire and those things. So you say, ‘Well great, you are involved in this conversation,’” she said.
Seattle and Montana, Democrats and Republicans. All share the same Earth and the takeaway from the panel discussion centered on this.
“Maybe the biggest difference Benji and I see would probably be around rhetoric surrounding these issues.”
Curtis agreed. The question he asks is this: “Do you want to leave the Earth better than you found it?”
Doug Wilks is the Executive Editor of the Deseret News. The Deseret News is set to host another “Elevate” forum May 17 in Phoenix, Arizona aimed at conservation and water management.