© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Dark clouds over the Miami skyline before Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, United States, on September 9, 2017. REUTERS / Carlos Barria
By Timothy Gardner
MIAMI (Reuters) – For Benji Backer, being conservative means believing in limited market-based government solutions, and scientists saying carbon emissions must be cut to avoid the worst of climate change.
Backer’s nonprofit, the American Conservation Coalition, held what it announced as the country’s first conservative climate rally in Miami, as part of an effort by the 23-year-old activist to convince fellow Americans of right that they don’t have to be liberal to support action on the issue.
It included a handful of Republican politicians from South Florida, facing climate threats including flooding from rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and health risks from higher temperatures and humidity.
“The environment has no preferred political party,” Backer said from a podium overlooking a bay near where the US Army Corps of Engineers proposed a $ 6 billion boardwalk. “Today conservatives are reclaiming our seat at the environmental table.”
An avid skier and hiker, Backer began organizing ACC as a freshman at college and was dismayed by then-President Donald Trump, who said climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese. The group said it expects its membership, currently in the thousands, to expand to 10,000 by the end of this year.
Backer’s mission reflects a nuance in American climate policy that is often lost in partisan debate: While the Republican Party views itself as opposed to climate action, many of its members believe in global warming but disagree. with the liberals on how to fix it.
However, that does not pose a minor problem.
Environmentalists accuse Backer’s group of obstructing aggressive climate action they say is necessary to save the planet by proposing market-based half-measures.
While the ACC supports parts of Democratic President Joe Biden’s climate plan, such as those that focus on innovation, from advances in nuclear power to carbon capture and storage, it also criticizes his proposals for being inflated and for not. ” simplify burdensome regulations. “
The Biden administration hopes to decarbonize the US economy by 2050 and the power sector by 2035, primarily by increasing the use of clean energy and electrifying vehicles and buildings.
The ACC platform only requires moving “towards” global net zero carbon emissions by 2050, without meeting or exceeding the target. Instead of the mandates included in Biden’s plan, he favors “market solutions” to reduce greenhouse gases, such as building more buildings with carbon-storing wood, creating new global forests in a “trillion-tree” program. and increase the use of free emissions. hydroelectric power.
“I don’t like mandates because they sometimes have a lot of unintended consequences of supporting some people at the expense of others,” said Emily Nielsen, a 29-year-old software engineer who attended the rally, which drew about 200 people.
“Conservatives are more concerned with encouraging innovation or voluntary action to address climate change,” he said.
But critics say measures supported by conservative groups like ACC could delay progress on urgent steps needed to curb climate change.
“We have the technology to combat climate change today. We need to start acting now,” said Julie McNamara, climate and energy program analyst at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.
Carla Staver, an ecologist and associate director of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, added that planting new forests may be a component of a comprehensive approach to climate change, but that estimates of its climate impact presented by some conservatives may be optimistic. “.
Another big hurdle for climate activists: ACC does not support the imposition of a carbon fee, a market mechanism that would encourage investors to switch to cleaner energy sources.
“An obsessive focus on innovation and policies that do not impose costs on anyone are, by definition, policies that are not up to the task,” said Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank.
Backer hopes there will soon be hundreds of climate-minded Republicans in Congress, compared to dozens today, pointing to recent polls showing younger party members are more open to curbing climate change than older ones.
US Representative Carlos Giménez of Florida, elected in 2020, and Miami Mayor Francis Suárez were among the Republicans who attended the rally.
For now, strong Republican support for the drilling and mining industries still hangs over conservative climate efforts. Some of the older rally attendees held signs that read: “No Climate Crisis!”
Taylor said small steps can go as far as the party can go right now as many Republican lawmakers represent states with significant fossil fuel industries.
“It could be that this kind of small-ball incrementalism is all that’s really possible,” he said.