“The science is clear. Climate change is real,” said Jack Pickett, a senior at the University of Washington.
Pickett is among 23 other college-aged students interviewed for this piece, all of whom belong to a new generation of climate-change activists.
These students are not the typical climate change activists. They don’t believe in a Green New Deal, and most don’t even believe government intervention is necessary to combat climate change. They believe in a new kind of climate change activism: conservationism.
Their message is simple. “When I think about conservatism, the first word I think of is ‘conserve.’ It’s our core principle,” said Michael DeSantis, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “We’re trying to stress the more social and emotional side. We’re trying to be compassionate conservatives.”
Conservative Conservationists, Not Climate Change Deniers
Generation Z conservatives, those ages 22 and younger, have been combatting an aggressive leftist narrative in their high schools and on their college campuses since they can recall being involved in politics. They have watched their moderate friends fall prey to the utopic promises progressives make, but conservative Gen Zers seem to have formed a general consensus that Republicans are losing students with their outright denial of climate change.
“The older generations don’t think that [climate change is] a problem, but we do,” said University of Minnesota student Megan Olson. “Younger generations of conservatives want to take back and reframe the narrative that we are climate change deniers. On campus, the conversation is being dominated by student groups that play into that progressive view of climate change.”
Gen Z conservatives are desperately looking to change the narrative that Republicans and conservatives alike are climate change deniers. They face the problem, however, of intense alarmism that exudes not only from progressive on-campus clubs, but from progressive leadership such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“On our college campuses, it really is the AOC idea that we’re all going to die. If you say you believe in climate change, then on campus, you must be a liberal. You must be plastic bag-free and never drive a car. That’s what it’s like on my campus,” said Karly Hahn, a junior at the University of St. Thomas. “I think that if we had an actually good conservative response to climate change, it would excite a lot more kids my age to vote Republican.”
“But, conservative solutions are difficult to find on a college campus when you leave most classes with a hatred for capitalism,” said Michigan State University student Sam Larey. “Why would kids be coming up with free market initiatives if they hate capitalism?”
Students such as Hahn and Larey are looking for ways in which they can hold their conservative principles and still agree with their liberal counterparts that climate change is a pressing issue. They may have found an answer in a growing conservative group called the American Conservation Coalition, or ACC.
The ACC was founded two years ago by none other than a conservative Gen Zer looking to to start a conversation about these very problems. Benji Backer is the president and founder of the ACC, and at just 21 years old, he is changing the way Gen Z conservatives talk about climate change.
“The left has dominated this issue for a very long time. They have made the issue alarmist and solutions unrealistic,” said Backer. “There’s this feeling like there’s not a conservative pathway to talk about [climate change], so students say crazy things and become deniers.”
The ACC is working to combat this problem. It is reframing the narrative, first, by talking in terms of “conservationism” instead of “climate change believers.”
Believing in Climate Change — but Also the Free Market
Backer referenced a 2014 Duke University study. The results revealed 36% of Republican respondents believed in climate change. However, if a free market solution to combatting climate change were an option, all of the sudden, 70% of Republicans believed in climate change.
When Backer saw the study, he knew conservatives were open to the idea of climate change; they just didn’t have options or an outlet to talk about free-market conservationism.
The students I interviewed couldn’t agree more. When I asked where climate change ranked in terms of issues they voted on, 10 of the 24 students interviewed said climate change ranked in the top five issues most important to them.
When I presented a scenario, however, in which conservative candidates offered practical climate change solutions, 23 of the 24 students jumped on board, saying climate change would definitely be in their top five most-important issues.
Gen Z Wants To Talk About Climate Change
“It’s been difficult not seeing any conservatives promote climate change policies,” said University of Iowa senior Matthew Volker. He isn’t the only Gen Zer asking for a conservative figure to speak out.
“I think most conservative leaders are open to conservative environmental reform; it just isn’t a legislative priority yet. That needs to change,” said incoming Bowling Green State University freshman Eric Cox. “If someone like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul were spearheading a pro-free market, pro-environmental policy, it would bring more attention to the subject.”
“I wish [climate change] was an issue I could vote on more, but candidates don’t give me the option to vote on this. If there was a way to vote for a candidate’s free-market environmental policies, I would have voted for that candidate yesterday,” said Kyle Hooten, an incoming junior at St. Olaf College.
So, why do we not hear about these trailblazing young conservatives who want to save our planet? Because liberals and conservatives alike have not figured out exactly how to react to these newfound conservationists.
“People were kind of scared of me because I was a conservative supporting climate change when I was in College Republicans,” recalled Bailey O’Connor, a senior at the University of Nebraska. “[Liberal students] don’t want to believe that [conservatives] have something good going on when it comes to climate change.”
But leftist students aren’t the only people ostracizing these young conservatives. Members of their own party and of their own belief system don’t hesitate to rip on these students, either.
“People called me a fake Republican for liking climate change,” O’Connor said. Throughout my interviews, the message was the same: Older Republicans were quick to lambast younger conservatives for prioritizing climate change.
One student told me the story of when former Turning Point USA ambassador Anna Paulina said she was not a fan of plastic straws. “The right chastised her,” said Larey. “It’s amazing what happens when liberals weaponize a word or idea.”
When it comes to environmentalism, liberals have weaponized more than straws and plastic bags. Students were keen to liken climate change-believing Republicans to young conservative women who call themselves feminists. Conservative feminists and conservative climate change believers don’t exist to the media. But in reality, they do.
Thousands of young, pro-life, conservative women across the nation call themselves feminists. Likewise, thousands of young people believe in climate change. As conservative women fear being conflated with third-wave feminism when they call themselves “feminists,” conservationists fear a similar conclusion with regards to climate change.
“When we talk about climate change, people tend to relate that to Green New Deal and AOC, and so it makes it difficult to express my opinion about how I believe in climate change,” said William Teeter, a junior at the University of Central Arkansas.
University of Rhode Island senior Ed Tarnowski agreed with Teeter, but he added, “I consider myself a climate change believer, but I’m not an alarmist.”
As Backer said, these students are defying stereotypes. Many of them, however, are struggling to find a way to be part of the conversation regarding conservationism.
The ACC is the best way to get involved in the conservative climate change conversation, Backer said. Beyond on-campus initiatives, Backer recommends students educate themselves about the subject.
“There’s no better way to understand conservation than to read about it,” Backer said.
He recommends reading the literature available on the ACC’s website and starting a chapter or getting involved in one of the 130 existing ACC chapters across the country. The ACC offers programming to help students lobby Congress on behalf of free market conservationism. Backer recommends people of all ages reach out to their state senators and representatives to express care about these issues.
“Republicans rarely hear from conservatives about climate change. Whenever they hear about the subject, they’re usually just getting yelled at by the left,” Backer said. “Hearing a conservative voice can actually change their opinions.”
And that’s exactly what these 24 conservatives are trying to do. They want to bring the climate change conversation to their campus, to their local governments, to their states, and to the federal government.
These students truly want to find a way to reconcile their “We The People” conservative values with the ideals of “We The Planet.”