Benji Backer was more than a thousand feet underground, an experience that would be daunting for many, but for the 26-year-old conservation activist, it was fun. Above ground, it was a sunny Wednesday at the Pinyon Plain Uranium Mine in northern Arizona, one of two operating uranium mines in the U.S.

Backer half-joked he likes to do crazy things, but said this was easy. “I just went down an elevator shaft,” he said.

The American miners he saw working in the dark deep below the surface during his tour have been pushing back on the federal government’s rules and regulations on uranium mining for decades. This 17-acre mine became operational earlier this year.

“No one would think that you could take an elevator shaft 1,400 feet underground, a whole entire Empire State Building worth, to get to what could power Arizona for a year,” Backer said this week. Uranium is an energy source for nuclear reactors, a technology many consider too risky. But the young conservative climate change activist pushes back on that thinking, saying if the U.S. doesn’t set up mines, they will pop up in places like Russia or Kazakhstan with lower environmental standards.

Being at the mine was a “surreal and rewarding experience,” said Backer, author of “The Conservative Environmentalist. “It really showed me how much potential we have on this Earth to find innovative solutions, whether that’s deep in the ocean or deep beneath the surface of the ground.”

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Backer is the executive chairman and founder of the American Conservation Coalition, a center-right organization, and he sees something missing from the narrative pushed by the United Nations, which is sounding the alarm about climate change. “We can’t leave anything off the table in our push towards a cleaner future,” Backer said.

“It’s possible that small nuclear reactors don’t work,” he said. But maybe battery technology takes off, and solar and wind power are more than enough, or carbon capture could become a reality, eliminating the need for renewables, Backer speculated. “We don’t know what the future of energy holds. ... And the U.N. has to come to that realization.”

Are fossil fuels the real enemy?

While Backer spent his Wednesday underground, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres gave a heated speech in New York City, where he compared humans to meteors that made dinosaurs go extinct and wagged his finger at the fossil fuel industry.

“The godfathers of climate chaos — the fossil fuel industry — rake in record profits and feast off trillions in taxpayer-funded subsidies,” Guterres said Wednesday. And although he said, “We need cooperation, not finger pointing,” the secretary-general made it clear that he believes in order to fight climate change, the world has “to clamp down on the fossil fuel industry,” and even urged advertisers to drop them as clients.

But the “fossil fuel industry isn’t the enemy. The emissions are,” Backer said, asserting that the secretary-general is misleading the public. He noted while he was speaking to the Deseret News he was sitting in a parking lot with nearly all gas-powered cars, a trend that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Backer said Guterres is “shortsighted” in his attempt to vilify an industry that could be a part of the solution.

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Utah Rep. John Curtis told the Deseret News he heard bits and pieces of Guterres’ speech. Of the secretary-general’s comments about fossil fuels, Curtis quipped, “I’d be curious to ask him how he got to work in the morning. How he gets around when he flies — because as far as I know, there aren’t any electric planes.”

“I wonder if he hasn’t noticed that fossil fuels are in his cellphone or in his clothing, they’re in his carpet. ... Everything he uses has got fossil fuels,” Utah’s 3rd District congressman said. Curtis said he also thinks “false narratives” that conflate fossil fuels with greenhouse gas emissions are disingenuous.

“If your mission is to eliminate fossil fuels, you’re not going to make much progress on climate change,” said Curtis. He argued that the oil and gas industry has invested billions in technology like direct air capture and carbon sequestration, and by upgrading infrastructure that reduces emissions from existing oil and gas facilities. U.S. exports of natural gas are 41% cleaner than Russian products, all thanks to research and development in the fossil fuel sector, according to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In addition to serving as vice chairman of the Energy, Climate, and Grid Security and Federal Lands subcommittees, Curtis is the emeritus chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus, which he founded in 2021.

In a statement to the Deseret News, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, the chair of the caucus, touted the progress the U.S. has made by lowering emissions by 20% — ahead of any other country — and said the nation is steadily adapting to the changing times.

“This reduction is driven by our higher utilization of natural gas, increased electrification, and renewable deployment in the electric power sector,” Miller-Meeks added.

Another caucus member, Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., proposed “adopting an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy.”

“We must look for ways to address the risks of climate change, but fearmongering and blaming a single industry won’t get us there,” Carter said.

Oil, coal, nuclear and natural gas create an affordable and global energy supply, as Alex Stevens, the policy and communications manager at American Energy Alliance, said in a statement.

“The scope of the U.N.’s climate initiatives are wildly out-of-step with the actual costs associated with climate change, and, if they continue to be pursued, they will continue to raise energy prices for everyone,” said Stevens, noting that lower-income communities will bear the brunt of rising energy costs. “The people most affected by rising energy prices will be the poor, especially those in developing countries who still lack access to affordable energy, partially due to the climate initiatives that have been imposed on them by the U.N.”

Does the doomsday scenario carry truth?

The World Meteorological Organization reported Wednesday an 80% chance the global annual average temperature will exceed the 1.5-degree limit within the next five years, Guterres said.

“The truth is … the battle for 1.5 degrees will be won or lost in the 2020s — under the watch of leaders today,” he said. “All depends on the decisions those leaders take — or fail to take — especially in the next 18 months. It’s climate crunch time.”

Guterres painted a picture of the melting Greenland Ice Sheet, the dying coral reefs, the deadly heatwaves in cities from New Delhi to Mexico City, and more.

But conservative climate advocates like Backer and Curtis don’t think it’s doomsday just yet. Backer said he thinks the fearmongering doesn’t help.

“If we only have 18 months, then we might as well give up because nothing moves that quickly,” he said. Backer said Guterres is deploying scientifically sourced worst-case scenarios to push people into action, but it has the opposite effect: “Anxiety is paralyzing for people,” he said. “Optimism, solutions, the promise of a better future, and slow transitions that help people and don’t take parts of their lives away — that’s how you get people to buy in on something.”

And these solutions should include low-cost pro-climate technology deployed at scale for the whole world, he said.

“Anybody in the scientific community can tell you climate change is a problem, but it’s not a doomsday scenario,” Backer added.

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According to the 2023 Yale Climate Opinion Maps, 72% of the American public believes global warming is happening, and 64% are worried about it. More than half of those surveyed want the president, Congress, their governors and local officials to do more. A May poll from the Data for Progress uncovered another layer to this concern: At least 55% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively impact their everyday lives.

Curtis said he has observed climate extremists using an alarmist approach for years. “It doesn’t work,” he said, and it pushes people to “do stupid things like mandate (electric vehicles) when they’re not the best environmentally friendly answer.”

Curtis said he thinks climate advocates should focus on practical and realistic ideas that acknowledge the importance of an energy independent U.S., the need to reduce American emissions, and the lack of effort made by other countries.

Even the Paris Agreement, the Utah congressman said, put the U.S. in a compromising position by requiring a complete phasing out of fossil fuel investment. When Europe attempted to adopt the goals of this agreement, it began importing fuel from Russia. But the EU had to pivot away from Russian products after the war in Ukraine began. This is why it’s important “to make substantial improvement without destroying our economy,” the GOP representative said.

“I would love the United States to lead in solutions that bring affordable, reliable, clean power around the world,” Curtis said. “I think the marketplace is poised and ready to do that and is actually doing a better job of it than government.”