The 2016 Republican platform briefly mentions climate change, if only to try to disarm it through a series of imperious sentences that roughly translate to PSSSSSH. “Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue,” one reads. “This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it.” Another: “The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution.” And we can’t forget: “The Environmental Protection Agency has rewritten laws to advance the Democrats’ climate change agenda.” These dismissals left no room to take the environment seriously in the platform.
“I thought the platform could have been worse,” Christian Berle, who does conservative outreach for the environmental nonprofit Defend Our Future, told MTV News. Berle went to the convention in Cleveland to support John Kasich but was also talking to people his age who might have been equally frustrated by the complete absence of climate change discussions onstage. Many young conservatives are trying to be optimistic when it comes to climate and the Republican Party, as it doesn’t seem there’s anywhere to go but up. “One of the unique gifts of the Christian community is hope, the unshakable belief that God is faithful to his promises,” says Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.
Very few people in their party are talking about climate change during this election cycle — or at all — but there are plenty of younger conservatives who are passionate about this issue and want their leaders to pay attention. And if they don’t, these young people are counting down the days until people their age can be the ones making these decisions. “Maybe this is the young college student in me,” says Andy Rodriguez, a Republican senior at the University of South Florida who went to the National Climate Leadership Summit in June, “but once the politicians that we know today grow old and are out of office, and when the people my age start to fill Congress, I’d like to think that Congress would deal with solutions.”
In 2014, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that “roughly six in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents under age 50 think the government should limit greenhouse gases even if it causes a $20 increase in their monthly bill.” A Monmouth poll from December found that 75 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 think the government should be doing more to prevent climate change. On top of that, groups that cater to conservative climate-caring types have been proliferating as Earth keeps breaking temperature records. There is Meyaard-Schaap’s aforementioned Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, which tries to get politicians and faith leaders to think about climate change as a moral issue. There are Young Conservatives for Energy Reform and republicEN, which advocate that being conscious of the environment is just economically smart. They definitely aren’t in total agreement with the more progressive and familiar environmental groups out there when it comes to how to solve, or at least mitigate, climate change, favoring free markets and local solutions with no regulations, but they are in firm agreement on the science and the fact that they want their party to acknowledge that this problem exists in the first place.
Defend Our Future has been cohosting events with these groups to help young people prove to leaders that Republicans who believe in climate change are real. The nonprofit held panels on the issue at both conventions; the one at the RNC took place just before the madness with the #NeverTrump-ers trying to stage a coup began. “I’m glad it was early in the convention,” executive director Alicia Kolar Prevost says. “It really got distracting immediately after the event ended.” The context surrounding the event was probably also an unwanted reminder for everyone in the room that getting anyone to pay attention to them this election cycle would be difficult. “I don’t think ‘confidence’ is the word I’d use,” Prevost said when asked to sum up how the groups are feeling right now. “And I don’t think the young people who were there would say that either.”
The job of these conservative environmentalists is made more difficult by the fact that the few people in the party who aren’t afraid of acknowledging that climate change exists are mostly keeping a low profile in the year of the Trump Show. As Grist pointed out last month, five of the most climate-friendly Republicans either avoided the convention, refused to endorse Donald Trump, or both. That list includes Senator Lindsey Graham, who met with some of these young conservative climate groups in March and said during one of the debates, “I’ve talked to the climatologists and they tell me that greenhouse gas effect is real, that we’re heating up the planet. I just want a solution that would be good for the economy that doesn’t destroy it.”
In the House, there are representatives like Chris Gibson in New York, who sponsored a resolution that says humans are making climate change worse and that Congress should do something about it. “If conservation isn’t conservative, then words have no meaning at all,” he told the Times-Union last fall, alluding to the days when Republican Teddy Roosevelt was one of our nation’s most prominent political leaders on the environment. Carlos Curbelo in Florida helped form the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. “Climate change is a real threat to our way of life,” he said in a statement to MTV News, adding that “the South Florida district I represent is directly affected by climate change, with rising sea levels and increased ocean acidification.”
None of these politicians were at the convention, which means that there was no one there to counter the prevailing image of the party as one that would like to ignore inconvenient science. If there were any young Republicans who care about this issue watching at home, there was absolutely nothing to convince them that this was a party for them.
And just like there’s an unknown, ominous time limit for dealing with climate change, Republicans are running out of time to convince young voters that there’s a place for them in the GOP. A McClatchy poll from earlier this month had Trump in fourth place — behind two third-party candidates — with voters under 30. Climate change, along with the party’s positions on social issues — not to mention the existence of Trump — work together to make winning over people who just want to agree with Republicans on financial issues difficult. “You couldn’t pay me to vote for Donald Trump,” Rodriguez, who voted for Marco Rubio, says. “I’m not happy with my choices.”
Climate hasn’t always been so polarized; like most other issues, the modern political landscape has worked its dark magic here. The last time a conservative leader allowed big changes in environmental policy, however, it was because he saw a very good political reason to do so: wooing the youth. “Richard Nixon tried to steal the environmental issue,” says J. Brooks Flippen, a professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University who wrote the book Nixon and the Environment. “He saw it as a way to win over young voters angry about Vietnam.” Once it became clear that young voters weren’t being won over, Nixon’s apathy for the issue returned to the forefront. The climate became far more partisan during the Reagan administration, although George H.W. Bush signed a Clean Air Act update in 1990.
The reason that environmental policy worked as a somewhat bipartisan issue in the ’60s and ’70s, however, was because people were genuinely terrified about the health effects of smog, witnessing firsthand what happened after the infamous oil spill in Santa Barbara or just reading books that convincingly argued that the world was about to end.
Then the laws passed, the air cleared, and the environment no longer seemed like it was in imminent danger. “The environmental movement was a victim of its own success,” Flippen says.
That lack of concern about climate change also poses a big problem for advocates across the ideological spectrum on this issue — how do you convince leaders that there is a good political reason to move on this issue when voters are mostly transfixed by other concerns? A poll from last fall showed that a majority of conservative Republicans believe that climate change exists, but only 42 percent of Americans are “very concerned” about global climate change, per Pew. Climate change is not an issue that is on the top of voters’ minds when they go to the polls. Gallup polling shows that just 2 percent of voters think that the environment or pollution is the most important problem facing the country. Single-issue voters are rare, and many people would side with a candidate even if they disagreed with him or her on climate. Until environmentalists are successful in persuading voters that climate is an economic and national security issue, it might be hard to make leaders pay attention.
Republicans in Florida — or Louisiana, which is dealing with devastating flooding right now — might be left with the job of convincing leaders that this isn’t only a policy area that could excite voters: It’s one that needs to be dealt with now if leaders don’t want their districts to float away. Municipal leaders like Jim Cason, the Republican mayor of Coral Gables, are the ones staring climate change right in the face. “It’s not a burning issue for our constituents. Maybe it’s like death and cancer, and people just don’t want to talk about it, or just say, ‘We’ll leave it to the grandkids’ or ‘It’s above my pay grade.’” He’s also not pleased with national Republicans, but for now, he says, “Nobody knows where the Republican Party is or what it is. There’s just a lot of wackos in there.”
Cason keeps talking about it anyway. “We have got to be worried about this. It’s existential. We may not be here in 90 years. We’re pretty blunt about why we should be concerned.” He also recognizes that young people are his best audience. “I tell them, ‘You guys are going to live to be 90. That puts you in 2106.’ I have this cartoon that I show them that has two ladies talking about what terrible traffic we have, and the potholes, and they’re standing in water up to their chest. They’re ignoring it. The kids aren’t going to be able to ignore it. They should be concerned. That’s the solution: The young people have to get involved.”