In Search of Young Republican Environmentalists

As I write this, Donald Trump has been the 45th President of the United States for all of five hours. In a blog post the day after election day, I made no secret of my disappointment in his election and my concern for the future of our country and the planet. But I also expressed a favorable view of Trump’s infrastructure spending proposal and encouraged, as part of that plan, the creation of a federal green bank to finance investments in renewable energy production and storage, energy conservation, and small-scale local energy production. On infrastructure spending, as well as several other issues such as global trade, universal health care, and certain labor and tax policies, Trump has more in common with the agenda of the far left of the Democratic Party than the Congressional Republican agenda. Against the wishes of many on the left, the Democratic leadership has made it clear that they are willing to work with Trump on policy goals that benefit the American people. And that’s the right attitude for our political leaders to have, and also the point of this article.

In this hyper-partisan moment, it is essential that members of a democracy find areas of mutual interest and push our political leaders, through thoughtful and spirited debate that draws on the best ideas from both sides of political spectrum, to implement policies at all levels of government that benefit society. However, it is well documented that, as individuals, we don’t do this. We seek out echo chambers that affirm our beliefs, and the left is just as guilty of this as the right. As Anthony Bourdain, the culinary celebrity, recently stated: Nothing nauseates me more than preaching to the converted. The self-congratulatory tone of the privileged left — just repeating and repeating and repeating the outrages of the opposition — this does not win hearts and minds. It doesn’t change anyone’s opinions. It only solidifies them, and makes things worse for all of us. We should be breaking bread with each other, and finding common ground whenever possible.

As an idealist, I think the environment can and should be one such area of common ground, but I am concerned that my organization is going to find it increasingly challenging to create a space for young environmentalist from both sides of the political spectrum to come together. Most of our participants come from overwhelmingly “blue” parts of the country and many of our students coming from “red states” often self-identify as “progressives” or “liberals” living in a conservative majority community. This didn’t seem like a problem insofar as it related to our mission of cultivating the next generation of environmental leaders until the divisive political campaign of 2016. I think that for the most part our facilitators have always been good about remaining apolitical and inserting a range of ideas into the conversation. Participants that hold conservative economic views have usually been among our most spirited debaters. However, I think it is hard to deny that the tenor of the national debate over the direction and values of this country have changed.

The the brazen appeals to anti-Trump supporters by many (perhaps all?) large environmental non-profits , although great for development, perhaps alienates conservatives. While I can take solace in the fact that the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other activist organizations likely had a banner fundraising year and are gearing up to fight hard for environmental rights in both courts of law and courts of public opinion, I do worry that these attacks levied against the Trump administration, which are designed to get progressives to open up their wallets, have the unintended consequence of distancing environmentally-inclined conservatives.

Although officially apolitical, I have to acknowledge my organization has the veneer of progressivism. Simply stating that climate change is a scientific fact, and that governments, businesses, and individuals have a moral responsibility to address it and other environmental issues, places us to the left of the Republican Party. Despite the considerable environmental legacy of the Republican Party (Nixon created the EPA and passed the Clean Air and Water Acts; Teddy Roosevelt gave us the national parks), today’s Republican Party has essentially ceded the mantle of environmentalism to the Democrats in favor of a false dichotomy that one must be either pro-economy or pro-environment, but not both. However, the GOP is out of touch with their constituents on this one, particularly younger constituents. It is only because there are so many other pressing issues (economic ones, principally) that the GOP hasn’t been held to account for a quarter century of environmental agnosticism. (I realize I’m oversimplifying here and we could get into state’s rights issues, conservation vs sustainability, regulatory vs market-oriented approaches, etc., but I don’t think this basic point — that the Democratic Party is the pro-environment party in a similar way that the Republican Party is pro-market — can be contested. Please comment if you disagree).

The key question, for me, is how can we – as environmentalists with a range of political views – go about fighting the good fight without driving people into their ideological corners. Getting someone to change her political orientation is nearly impossible, but getting people with different party affiliations to link arms together on an issue of mutual importance is much more exciting than donating money towards a legal battle or lobbying efforts. If progressives truly want the edge in the upcoming environmental battles, they’ll find kinship across the aisle among their Republican environmentalist brethren who can help put conservation back into conservatism. There are fundamental disagreements about the means by which environmental issues should be addressed and it may take years or decades (which we unfortunately don’t have to spare), but any meaningful change in policy starts with elevating the issue to one of priority. Healthcare, economic, and national security issues are dominating the discussion today, but the environment deserves to be at the top of the slate of issues for the next four years.

As environmental leadership program, we’re fortunate to have students from all over the world attend our programs. The common denominator is a shared passion for the environment and a desire to be an agent for positive social and environmental change. We welcome students regardless of their political beliefs. Historically, more of those students have been “progressive” rather than “conservative” and I’m hoping we can change that. With a new presidential administration mere hours underway, the usual talk of “coming together” and “uniting a divided country” is being tossed around by politicians like the empty rhetoric that it is. But if you’re a future environmental leader, on our summer programs you’ll find a collegial, open-minded, and diverse community of young people that share a vision for a more just and sustainable planet. Will you consider joining us this summer?

As the founder and director of an environmental non-profit I am faced with the challenge of maintaining an apolitical viewpoint in all aspects of the organization — from branding to programming — let me address this issue head on. I was particularly pleased to receive some critical feedback from a Republican student in this past summer’s Environmental Leadership Academy who found a guest speaker’s invective aimed at Congressional Republicans to be unnecessarily polarizing. That’s a fair point and, in addition to seeking young Republican environmentalists for our program, I am really hoping to find a noted Republican environmentalist to be a guest speaker at the academy. (The speaker in question is the radio show host and comedian Pete Dominick.)

And there is the whole issue of the Republican Party platform, which denies the overwhelming evidence that anthropogenic climate change is human-caused and poses a clear and present danger. So, the debate needs to be around how address this problem, not whether it exists. After all, you are entitled to your opinion, but not your own set of facts.

I think we, as a society, are outgrowing this disconnect. Young republicans are more moderate than older generations.