As I spent Christmas with my family this year, several of my normally even-keeled family members — from the political left and right — mentioned the severity of the political divide, even wondering if America would be better off splitting up. As a political activist who is surrounded by division and has seen firsthand how some politicians stoke division for their own gain, this pained me to hear.
But there’s an issue gaining traction that may be able to bridge a small portion of that divide: the environment.
This past fall, I worked with Reps. John Curtis, R-Utah, and Dean Phillips, D-Minn., to gather a small group of their Republican and Democratic House colleagues for dinner. Gathering around a table with those across the political aisle was a bold move, especially during the heat of the 2022 election season. The goal of the dinner? To discuss where common ground could be found on climate and the environment. To my surprise, it was easier than I could have ever imagined to recruit lawmakers who wanted to have the conversation.
Many of these politicians had never talked with each other before, let alone tried to have a conversation about collaborating on environmental issues. But the only thing simpler than finding politicians who wanted to join the gathering was finding common ground once we sat down together.
We agreed on the importance of nuclear power to reduce emissions and how it can provide reliable power to millions of Americans. We agreed on the need to reduce our dependence on China and other nations for our energy, mining and manufacturing needs. We agreed on the importance of conservation and the restoration of America’s beautiful ecosystem. And so much more.
Despite coming to the same conclusions on numerous priorities, each member had a different reason why they believed what they did. For example, some of the legislators cared deeply about conservation and the restoration of our ecosystems for climate change-related reasons, while others cared about conserving our nation’s beauty, and others wanted to stand up for hikers, skiers, hunters, anglers and other outdoorspeople.
As a Gen Zer sitting in that room witnessing this inspiring conversation unfold, I began to realize that this is how environmental issues can actually move forward in 2023 — and for decades to come. While it was no secret there was disagreement on plenty of other issues, those seemed to fall by the wayside when alignment on environmental issues was found.
After all, this is how environmental issues used to be approached. Before the days of today’s divisive rhetoric, Republicans and Democrats passed dozens of helpful policies together. It’s clear that each region of the country is faced with different issues, including population density, weather, energy resources, ecosystems and economies. So every politician has an incentive to play a helpful role in solving environmental issues, but often for different reasons.
The only frustrating part of the dinner was how rare and out-of-place something like this gathering was. As mentioned, many of these politicians had never even talked to each other before. While most Americans may claim to want less political division, we aren’t rewarding it. In this era of polarization many have an incentive to be divisive. The more divisive the rhetoric, the more Americans tune into the story — even if we claim we don’t like it.
After the gathering, I was asked by numerous people: “How the heck did you put this together?” They referenced my youthful age, a divisive midterm election looming ahead and current political rhetoric. I responded with the simple truth: “Because I actually tried.”
Most politicians still welcome the chance to be in a room with colleagues from the “other side.” However, the politicians at this dinner — and those who take this approach in general — typically have lower name recognition because they’re the ones who refuse to grandstand. Cross-partisan action receives virtually no media attention, as shown by the fact that no reporters told the story of this gathering, or the constructive conversations that have happened thereafter preparing us for progress in 2023.
This past year, countless positive steps were taken by politicians across the aisle, most recently the “Growing Climate Solutions Act,” a common-sense policy that passed with a whopping 92-8 vote in the Senate, and was included in President Biden’s end-of-year omnibus bill.
As we look to 2023, we can continue to make bipartisan progress on environmental policy. With the upcoming Congress upon us, we have a chance to turn the page on the partisanship we’ve seen on environmental issues for decades and return to the common-sense environmental legacy forged decades ago.
Republicans, who control the House, have a chance to lead on legislation that lowers emissions, creates jobs and expands American energy production. Democrats and other Republicans — in both chambers — must be willing to put aside differences and help move this agenda forward. But most of all, American voters must demand and support this sort of leadership. Our leaders truly cannot do it without us.
Outside of the fringes, nearly every American leader wants better, cleaner communities. It’s up to us, as voters tired of the political divide, to help support those who are willing to make it happen.
Benji Backer is the president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC) and a Deseret News contributor. Follow him on Twitter @BenjiBacker.