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‘Actually not an oxymoron’: For some young Republicans, climate and environment are top issues

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‘Actually not an oxymoron’: For some young Republicans, climate and environment are top issues

Dec 07, 2023 | 5:00 am ET
By Hadley Barndollar
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‘Actually not an oxymoron’: For some young Republicans, climate and environment are top issues
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Chris Barnard (left) president of the American Conservation Coalition Action, speaks with Republican presidential candidate Doug Burgum about the environment on Nov. 29 in Manchester. (Hadley Barndollar | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The sight of young Republicans gathering with a presidential candidate over beer, appetizers, and a conversation about the environment may appear as a paradox. 

But it’s not, at least for a growing segment of young conservatives who are calling for leadership on climate change and environmental issues. They’re bucking the national GOP’s most vocal members and broad-brush sentiments that the issues aren’t of policy importance to Republicans.

It’s a topic receiving little attention on the national debate stage. But for a new series of presidential candidate forums – co-hosted by the New Hampshire Young Republicans, New Hampshire College Republicans, and the American Conservation Coalition Action – the environment is a big part of the conversation.

‘Actually not an oxymoron’: For some young Republicans, climate and environment are top issues
Virginia Drye, chair of the New Hampshire Young Republicans. (Hadley Barndollar | New Hampshire Bulletin)

“These are the issues that many of the young folks are debating in their heads when they go to vote,” said Virginia Drye, chair of the New Hampshire Young Republicans, referencing the “three e’s” on which candidates will be pressed for nuanced answers during the events: environment, economy, and education.

Polling in recent years has shown that younger conservatives are diverging from their older counterparts when it comes to the environment. In an August Granite State Poll, 41 percent of Republicans ages 18-34 said climate change was human-caused, while just 11 percent of Republicans ages 50-64 said the same.

In fact, polling suggests that younger voters of any age bracket, regardless of political party, are prioritizing the environment and climate change more so than older Republicans. In a sense, it’s a harkening back to the Republican Party of the past.

“If you go back a few decades, you’ll find environmental concern was largely bipartisan,” said Lawrence Hamilton, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire who studies perceptions of climate change. “A lot of the landmark environmental legislation we have today came about under Republican presidents with bipartisan support. (Then) there was a top-down effort to link climate change negatively with a liberal identity. And what this was was really fossil fuel interests arguing that if you identify as conservative, you should not believe this stuff. Attitudes changed as a result.”

Teddy Roosevelt, known as the “conservationist president,” created the Forest Service and National Wildlife Refuge System. Richard Nixon launched the Environmental Protection Agency. In the early 2000s, Sen. John McCain was a Republican sponsor of legislation to address climate change.

To that end, Chris Barnard, president of the American Conservation Coalition Action and a member of the Republican National Committee’s Youth Advisory Council, argues: “That’s in our DNA. It’s actually not an oxymoron.”

ACC Action is a national nonprofit working to bridge the gap between conservative values and effective environmental action, with more than 30,000 members and 100 chapters. Barnard said there is an appetite for a “conservative environmental movement” among young people. 

And there’s also a hankering for a more “nuanced response” to climate change, conservation, and energy from the 2024 Republican candidates for president. 

Young voters sought that from North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on Wednesday. Nov. 29, the candidate first up in the new event series at Stark Brewing in Manchester. Burgum, who later suspended his presidential campaign on Dec. 4, has supported carbon capture and sequestration versus fossil fuel elimination – his state is heavily reliant on the gas and oil industries for revenue and jobs. He spoke about innovation versus regulation, the latter of which he blamed Democrats for building much of their climate policies on. 

Matt Perry, a 31-year-old small-business owner from Connecticut, made the drive to Manchester to see Burgum speak. A former Obama voter, he supports making electric vehicles more viable in terms of mileage, as well as developing new energy sources like wind and geothermal. But “not at the expense of everyone’s freedom.”

Perry cited “too much overreach” in government efforts to regulate environmental issues. An example, he said, was recent news that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission may move to ban gas stoves, as a result of rising concerns around harmful indoor air pollutants. That, he said, is antithetical to American values. 

Perry sees another problem, too. 

“Democrats talk about the environment all the time, and conversely, Republicans don’t talk about it at all,” he said.

‘Actually not an oxymoron’: For some young Republicans, climate and environment are top issues
Chris Barnard, president of the American Conservation Coalition Action, opens a new presidential candidate forum series focused on economy, environment, and education. (Hadley Barndollar | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Barnard, of ACC Action, moderated the environment portion of the first event in the series, dubbed the “Future of Conservatism.” He said young people are overwhelmingly voting for Democrats because they see them as having a better vision on climate and environmental issues. But with dwindling interest in President Joe Biden, he argued, Republicans can win over younger voters with robust conservative climate platforms.

An NBC News poll released in November found Trump leading Biden among voters aged 18-34, with Trump garnering support from 46 percent of those voters to Biden’s 42 percent. National exit polling in 2020 suggested Biden won voters under 30 by more than 20 percentage points.

“A lot of the solutions that we get from the left sound good but aren’t actually good in practice,” Barnard said. “Whether it’s forest management or subsidizing (electric vehicles) that we’ll just end up relying on China for, a lot of what we need to be doing is turning this narrative on its head, that conservatives care about conservation and we can tackle climate change with innovation.”

Republicans need to bring forward their own “more positive vision” of solutions, he said – such as streamlining energy permitting processes and establishing energy independence from foreign countries.

At the first GOP national debate, an ACC Action audience member asked the only climate-related question. Barnard said young people weren’t overly impressed with the candidates’ responses, though Nikki Haley did emerge with some authority on the issue by acknowledging climate change on a national stage.

“Is climate change real? Yes, it is,” she said. “But if you want to go and really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”

‘Actually not an oxymoron’: For some young Republicans, climate and environment are top issues
Isaiah Menning, a senior at Dartmouth, started the campus chapter of the American Conservation Coalition. (Courtesy)

That piqued the interest of Isaiah Menning, a senior at Dartmouth College. Recognition of climate change is one of the non-negotiables he’s looking for in a Republican nominee.

Party leadership in the past two decades has not been forthright about acknowledging the reality of human-influenced climate change,” he said. “Forthrightness in that is really attractive.”

Menning, who is from Utah, interned with Sen. Mitt Romney last spring in Washington, D.C., where he participated in a policy bootcamp with the American Conservation Coalition. There, he heard his home state congressman, Rep. John Curtis, say that conservatives have real climate solutions and that the Republican Party needs to embrace the issue.

When Menning returned to Dartmouth’s campus this fall, he launched a college chapter of the American Conservation Coalition. The group recently held an event with the Dartmouth Conservatives where, he said, there was unanimous agreement that climate change was real and should be addressed with policy.

“I think we’re seeing increased acceptance of this, and from my personal experience working in Congress, it seems younger members of the staff tend to be on board with this issue on the Republican side,” Menning said. “I think there are signs of change on the horizon here.”

That change, he added, is essential for Republicans to remain “electorally viable,” particularly since research has shown that Gen Z turned out to vote in higher numbers in 2022 than Gen Xers and Millennials did when they made up the same 18-24 voting bloc. 

Personally, Menning supports cutting red tape for energy production and embracing local control of natural resources. He supports a diversified energy grid, one featuring “all of the above” solutions that may be more appropriate where wind and solar aren’t – such as hydrogen, nuclear, and carbon capture.

UNH’s Hamilton said the generation gap trends seen in Granite State polling extend to the whole country: Young people in general are more likely to believe in and care about climate change. Why, he speculated, is because major changes are expected during their lifetimes. 

Published last month, the U.N. Emissions Gap Report warned that if countries don’t plan quickly for steep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, global temperature will rise nearly 3 degrees Celsius (or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels in this century – much higher than the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold scientists have said would begin to trigger catastrophic effects.

“They have longer time horizons,” Hamilton said of younger voters. “If people imagine that global warming is going to cause problems 20 or 30 years down the line, maybe the old folks don’t feel that they have so much investment in that. Whereas if you tell a young person we’re going to have runaway wildfires and flooding increasing into the future, they’re thinking, ‘That’s my life.’”