Sunday, 24/9/2017 | 3:04 UTC+0

Inside the renegade Republican movement for tackling climate change

When Alex Bozmoski was in college, he didn’t believe climate change was real. He was “a very active conservative Republican,” he says, who “loved making noise.” In high school, he started a newspaper called The Right Idea; the logo was an eagle gripping a Christian cross. And at Georgetown University, after George W. Bush won the election in 2004, he carried a cardboard cutout of the president around campus until he was tackled by a liberal student and Bush was broken in half.

So when Bozmoski enrolled in a climate science class taught by Nathan Hultman, his primary goal was to heckle the professor. But every time he brought up something he had heard on a conservative radio talk show, Hultman asked him to back up those claims with actual scientific evidence. Soon, Bozmoski realized climate skepticism was unfounded, and that climate change is a very serious issue that his own political party was completely ignoring.

“I felt alienated that my tribe has been so out of the loop and not even working on it,” Bozmoski says. “To me, it seemed like just an easy way out, like a coping mechanism more than a governing strategy.”

So a few years after his college graduation, Bozmoski began traveling around the country, speaking to conservatives about climate change and free-market options to tackle it. He visited church groups, federalist societies, chambers of commerce, universities — alone or together with Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman who introduced a bill to tax carbon emissions. (Inglis’ views on climate change cost him his House seat in 2010.) As Bozmoski did more of these talks, he says, “it became pretty clear that when people heard from us, a lot of conservatives were very motivated to get involved.”

In 2014, Bozmoski and Inglis founded republicEn, a group of about 3,000 people all over the US trying to create a grassroots movement of “conservative climate realists.” “We want to give them a voice,” Bozmoski says. “We want members of Congress to see that big chunks of their conservative constituents are deeply passionate about the environment and care deeply about taking responsible action to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

It’s not just Bozmoski and Inglis — or even just their group. Around the US, conservative leaders and organizations are trying to get people on the right involved in conservation, renewable energy, and climate change action. They do it by appealing to whatever it is these constituents care about: economic growth, hunting wildlife, or national security. The goal is making sure the US is prepared to tackle one of the most serious challenges facing our country and our planet — global warming.

Some in the GOP are taking notice. In February, a group of Republican elder statesmen released a proposal to tax carbon emissions produced by burning fossil fuels. And in March, a group of more than a dozen GOP lawmakers introduced a climate change resolution to the House of Representatives, calling for action against the looming threat of rising sea levels and warming temperatures. “It’s important that we take climate change very, very seriously because the threats that are posed by that are very serious,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), who signed the resolution, told The Atlantic. “I’m just not a person that believes we should be turning a blind eye to it.”

Unfortunately, many other Republicans are turning a blind eye to it. The GOP has a track record of opposing environmental regulation and a party platform that supports burning fossil fuels. Certain Republican members of Congress don’t even believe that global warming is caused by human activity. (It is, according to the vastest majority of scientists.) At the same time, Republican president Donald Trump, who called climate change a “hoax,” ran a campaign on the promise to bring back highly polluting coal. Last week, he signed an executive order to start dismantling the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy. And his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is a known climate change denier.

The GOP’s stance is at odds with what many Republicans feel. A poll from last year showed that 71 percent of liberal / moderate Republicans and 47 percent of conservative Republicans believe that our planet is warming — and that number is increasing. (The percentage of conservative Republicans who believe in climate change has jumped 19 percentage points since 2014, more than any other group.) The majority of Republicans also support more funding for energy sources like wind and solar, and believe heat-trapping pollutants like carbon dioxide should be regulated.

So why are Republican lawmakers looking the other way when it comes to global warming? They don’t live in Miami, says the city’s mayor Tomás Regalado, a member of the Republican Party. Residents there experience regular flooding from rising sea levels, and certain banks are very hesitant about granting loans for mortgages for 30 years, he says. “This is a real issue that people have experienced here,” Regalado says. “We have a problem, and [Republicans] have to recognize that this is not only a philosophical debate, it’s a real economic issue.”

The next town over, called Coral Gables, is facing similar problems. Streets and parks are flooded during high tides. “You look out your door, you see an octopus in your basement … or the mullets swimming around our parking lots, you get it,” says Mayor Jim Cason, also a member of the Republican Party. Cason isn’t waiting for Washington to step in — his administration has already been working on a sustainability plan for the town, and is updating building codes to increase the height of the most vulnerable facilities when they need repairs. But when I ask him whether he’s doing all this because his constituents are worried about climate change, and demanding action, Cason says residents actually aren’t expressing much concern. “Basically silence,” he says.

Bozmoski believes that’s exactly why Republican lawmakers aren’t acting on climate change. “I think the answer boils down to one phrase that we hear over and over from members of Congress: ‘My constituents rarely call me about climate change. I rarely get phone calls about this. It is not on the mind of our constituents,’” Bozmoski says. It’s also true that the fossil fuel industry overwhelmingly gives campaign donations to Republicans rather than Democrats. But in poll after poll, climate change does seem to be at the bottom of the list when Americans wonder what to worry about. And for conservatives, “it’s not a national movement right now,” Bozmoski says. So that’s the movement he’s working to create.

He travels around the country, telling people about global warming and republicEn’s free-market vision for tacking it: no to subsidizing renewables; yes to a carbon tax; no to American export taxes; yes to government’s investment in basic research to find new forms of energy. To energize this still-infant grassroots movement — “we’re a scrappy bunch” — Bozmoski also talks about the science of climate change. If you don’t believe in the science, you’re out. “Moving past the science is not how we’re going to deal with this,” Bozmoski says. “The climate science is so central to the urgency of action that you can’t lose it and not lose the urgency.”

Other conservative groups, however, try to steer away from talking directly about climate change. “With older conservatives, if you say anything about climate, they immediately shut you down,” says Michele Combs, the founder and chair of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform. “The younger generation do not feel that way; they grew up recycling. It doesn’t have that stigma.” So Combs approaches the problem from another angle: energy reform. Her group, which counts 100,000 members, hopes to sway the national discourse over energy policy, by encouraging the use of renewable energy. To help conservatives embrace renewables, she often invites retired military generals to speak at her events.

The US Army has been vocal about wanting to boost clean energy. The advantage is twofold: US troops who rely less on oil can spend less time convoying that oil in foreign countries and risking to be blown up; and reducing greenhouse gases is paramount for addressing climate change, which the military sees as a serious national security threat. (Rising sea levels and more extreme weather events will lead to a more unstable, conflict-prone world, according to a Defense Department report.) When these respected military leaders speak to conservatives, it generally works, says Brian Smith, who used to work on renewable energy for the Defense Department and now volunteers at Young Conservatives for Energy Reform. “I think it resonates with most people,” he says.

Combs says that climate change action is not the end goal of her group, but more of a side effect. “We come in with the clean energy, because cleaner energy is going to take care of the problem,” she says. A similar approach — when it comes to conservation — is taken by some conservative groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. The sportsmen’s organization focuses on preserving wildlife habitats, and protecting clean air and water on public lands, but it doesn’t address climate change directly. Conservation is what hunters have been doing for more than 150 years, says Land Tawney, the president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, it resonates with hunters much more than a politicized term like climate change.

The group works for keeping public access to public lands, so they’re not sold for private development. It also advocates for oil and gas development to be done in a safe way, so that core habitats and migration routes are kept pristine. If animals can move more freely and expand their ranges, they will be able to better adapt to warming climates, by moving to higher latitudes for example. This is, of course, just a step toward addressing climate change. “All the conservation work that we’re doing has an effect on that,” Tawney says. “You’re really still working on it but you’re not directly working on it.”

That’s not how all hunters approach climate change. Randy Newberg, a hunter and advocate for hunting on public lands, has no qualms about acknowledging the problem. “If you spend as much time in the hills as I do, I don’t know how you could deny that climate is changing,” he says. Deniers exist, “but honestly, I call them the flat-Earth society,” he adds. Many hunters see climate change as a serious threat to the wildlife and public lands they want to protect for future generations. That’s what’s been driving the conservation movement for decades in the US, and it should not be a liberal or a conservative issues, says Newberg, who identifies as an Independent. “Maybe I’m naive and too idealistic for today’s political world,” he says, “but I struggle to understand how is it that clean air and clean water and productive lands are a partisan issue. To me, they’re an American issue.”

For now, the White House hasn’t been very responsive, but it might be just too early to tell, says Bozmoski. Some proposals coming out of Washington — like the carbon tax and the climate change resolution — seem to bode well. “It really stokes our optimism on the Eco Right, that our family has gotten bigger and more powerful,” Bozmoski says. At the same time, he says, it will take time for Republicans to come together and put forward a climate change policy — they will need to get over the divisions within their own party and develop an actual policy. That’s what groups like republicEn are there for, Bozmoski says. And he has high hopes. “The prospects for a coalition of lawmakers moving forward with a solution is better now than it has been in any point since 2010,” Bozmoski says. “There’s no more pussyfooting around climate change out of fear.”

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