Three Utah congressmen said they were optimistic about a future where conservatives can lead on the issue of environmentalism, while speaking at the second annual American Conservation Coalition Summit held in Salt Lake City on Friday.
Reps. Blake Moore of Utah’s 1st District, John Curtis of Utah’s 3rd and Burgess Owens of Utah’s 4th took the stage on the second day of the conference during the keynote session to discuss what a uniquely conservative approach to addressing climate change might look like. They spoke before a room of mostly millennials and Gen Zers who made up the vast majority of attendees and organizers.
“Getting a group of young people together that don’t just want to give into sensationalism and that want to really know productive ways to address the environmental challenge, I’m all in, that’s what conservatism is to me,” Moore said in an interview with the Deseret News at the event.
In the interview, Moore referred to a promise he made during his campaign before being elected to his first term in 2020 “to be an optimistic, positive conservative voice for the next generation.”
And the three Utah congressmen strived to do just that Friday, encouraging the audience to frame solutions to environmental problems — such as energy dependence, climate change, forest fires and drought — in terms of innovation rather than destruction and “degrowth.”
“Conservatism is about innovation, is about optimism, is vision, is how to get a better result in being able to reflect and see where we make mistakes — the other side is just the opposite,” Owens said. “It’s about fear. It’s about a sense of knowing everything and not ever having to have accountability for those bad mistakes.”
It was a recognition of this lack of accountability among the nation’s lawmakers on topics related to America’s environmental stewardship that motivated Benji Backer to found the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit organization focused on organizing young conservatives around commonsense, small government solutions on climate and energy, in 2017.
This year’s conference took place on the second floor of the Salt Lake Marriott City Center, and was characterized by upbeat music, tightly produced videos and energetic hosts speaking the social media-savvy language of its participants.
But the 20- and 30-somethings who filled the room were looking to do more than score points for their internet egos. Scanning the room one saw the face of a confident and conservation-conscious conservative grassroots. Attendees were young, college educated professionals, who work in fields like public policy, software development and civil engineering and hail largely from out of state, including Nevada, Oregon, California, Arkansas and Virginia.
It was the initiative of young activists like Backer and organizations like the ACC, Curtis said, that motivated him to become educated on environmental issues when he was first elected to Congress in 2017. Since then, Curtis has worked to change the narrative on conservative efforts in the conservation and clean energy space, creating the Conservative Climate Caucus, which has become the fourth largest caucus in the Republican conference.
“I think this is very fundamentally important for conservatives to be able to articulate that we care deeply about this earth, we care deeply about leaving it better than we found it,” Curtis said. “What’s been missing in the past is we’ve been very good at telling everybody what we don’t like, and we’ve not been so good at telling people what we would like to do.”
Curtis’s environmental action plan would prioritize integrating fossil fuels into a vision of a clean energy future and taking a worldwide look at greenhouse gasses, instead of focusing only on cutting emissions at home.
In recognition of Curtis’s work to foster productive conversations about environmentalism on the right, Backer awarded the congressman the “Eco Right” award.
“John Curtis isn’t out there trying to create divisive rhetoric to build his own name ID, but he’s doing what elected officials are supposed to do, change the narrative, change the policy conversation and make this country a better place,” Backer said. “He’s the best our country has in terms of leadership.”
Moore said it was Curtis’ leadership that paved the way for other Republicans like himself to speak out and advance policy in the climate arena.
“When I was kind of watching from the sidelines, I saw his leadership and his candid nature and his ability to be able to share a conservative message, but productive, and I just feel like that’s what Utahn’s are, they’re productive conservatives, and we want to be able to tackle big issues, and you can’t do it if you’re sitting on the sidelines,” Moore said.
The recent bill passed to suspend the debt ceiling limit carried permitting reform that will make more innovative solutions on the clean energy front possible, according to Moore, one sign that conservatives are already making a change when it comes to producing alternatives to progressive policies.
“Success can breed more success,” Moore said during a conversation with Backer.
The summit offered a whole day of programming which included breakout sessions on community organizing and a panel discussion with Gary Hoogeveen, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Power, and Mason Baker, CEO and general manager of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, moderated by Deseret News Editor Hal Boyd.