Conservative activist Benji Backer began the American Conservation Coalition (ACC) in 2017, after first coming up with the idea in a freshman entrepreneurship class at the University of Washington.
“He saw this gap in ideas when it came to the environment,” said ACC Communications Director Karly Matthews. “There was a lot of progressive and liberal engagement on the issues and he felt that conservatives did care about the issue, but they weren’t talking about it.”
By working with representatives at all levels of government, Backer hoped to “revamp this environmental conversation and actually make some progress in reducing emissions by bringing both sides to the table.”
Matthews came to the organization as an intern in 2018. “I grew up in a really conservative area and always identified right of center, but I care about the environment,” she said. Growing up with hunters and fishers in her family, she spent a lot of time outside. And while the environment wasn’t a big topic of conversation in her political circles, she decided to get involved with the ACC. She appreciates the youth focus:
“There is definitely a generational divide on environmental issues. There’s a consensus among younger generations that climate change is a threat and we need to address it, even if we have policy differences.Karly Matthews, ACC Communications Director
There’s this idea that we have to choose between the economy and the environment when we’re talking about environmental issues. I don’t think that mindset is present in younger generations. I think we acknowledge that we need to prioritize them both.”
Bridging the rural-urban divide
Several days after the 2020 presidential election, ACC’s founder Benji Backer spoke with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg on their podcast series How to Save a Planet. “Right now, there is this massive rural-urban divide. And urban folks — which I’m one of — get a lot of time, a lot of attention, a lot of media. And it is really, really difficult for people in urban areas to understand what people in rural areas go through. And it’s not the same to say, ‘Oh, well, rural areas don’t understand what urban areas go through.’ Well, they have to hear about it all the time… And they’re being told what to do by urban places every single day.”
Leading up to Election Day, Backer embarked on a 50-day road trip in a Tesla X, making stops across 34 states and meeting with environmental activists, farmers, sportsmen, and coal workers all along the political spectrum. Matthews joined for the Southeast portion, visiting Tallahassee, Florida, Mobile, Alabama, and the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana.
“Those were all communities that are really committed to conservation. We were talking to a man who works for Ducks Unlimited about climate change and how that affects duck hunting and how he’s seen the area change over his lifetime.”
“Obviously, we see a lot of tech startups [with] different ways of addressing climate change and reducing emissions in places like New York City and Silicon Valley. But there’s also a lot of really interesting conversations happening on the ground in small communities,” Matthews said. “There’s a really important element of localism when it comes to environmental issues. People know what’s best for their communities and I think we saw that on the road trip.”
Localism is a central tenet in the ACC’s approach to climate change. While on the road, people from small communities made the same observation: elected officials don’t really come out there, that they are working towards climate goals without government support.
“The big thing we talk about when we talk about climate change is, ‘Okay, what is Congress doing? What is the President doing?’ And those things are important, don’t get me wrong, but it was interesting how, no matter where people were on the political spectrum, where they were in the country, they were like, ‘I’m taking this into my own hands.’”
People in rural areas, Matthews noted, want to work together with those in urban centers towards a common goal. “I think there’s this consensus of feeling really divided across the country, but not knowing why.”
“We met with this man in Mobile, Alabama, whose initiative is all about collecting marine litter. And he was saying, ‘I take this initiative to urban centers because that’s where the litter is.’ They were able to cooperate that way, but there’s still this divide between our communities when there shouldn’t be. I think we discovered that we have a lot of the same priorities and we just need to have that conversation.”
Shifting the Conversation in the Republican Party
When the ACC was founded, “Republicans in Congress were not talking about climate change,” Matthews continued. “The most public example of that was Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma throwing a snowball on the Senate floor [in 2015] to demonstrate that climate change was not happening.”
“Fast-forward to 2020 pre-COVID, Leader [Kevin] McCarthy was introducing a climate package in the House. There are plenty of bipartisan bills in the Senate spearheaded by Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), by Susan Collins (R-ME), by Cory Gardner (R-CO), who unfortunately lost his reelection bid. Steve Daines (R-MT) spearheaded the effort for the Great American Outdoors Act.”
“I think we’ve really moved this needle from, at times, outright denial of climate change to embracing environmental issues coming from a different place than those on the left, more of an innovation-driven, incentive-driven approach,” she added. “In the 2020 election, Republicans actually made gains in the House, which was unexpected. And some of the challengers who unseated Democratic incumbents made climate change a centerpiece of their campaign. I’m thinking about Peter Meijer from Michigan Three who on the debate stage talked about the American Climate Contract which is the climate platform that ACC introduced. That’s worlds away from where we were in 2015.”
Ultimately, Matthews and Backer believe bipartisan solutions are the way forward — especially if President-elect Biden is going to work with a (likely) Republican Senate and Democratic House.
“Republicans need to have a widespread climate plan that they can bring to the table and Democrats can’t have this ‘Green New Deal or nothing’ approach to climate action. It’s going to have to be a compromise and we’re already seeing that. We’re not going to have a Green New Deal under a Joe Biden presidency, but we also can’t have climate denial.”Karly Matthews, ACC
“Both sides have really vilified each other over the past four years. There has been damage done.” But, having gone to college in Philadelphia, Matthews is also familiar with how to have those tough conversations across the aisle. “This sounds incredibly cheesy, but it needs to come from a place of respect and understanding that both people in the conversation are concerned about the issue. They have different principles, but they want to work together.”
Promoting ‘effective environmentalism’
When the ACC introduced the American Climate Contract, it was with the asterisk that, “This is not a partisan plan. These are actionable solutions that anyone can get behind.” Some of these actions of “effective environmentalism,” Matthews said, include planting trees and promoting nuclear energy (“[We want it] to really be a coalition builder because that’s clean energy. There’s a nuclear bill in the Senate that has both Democratic and Republican co-sponsors.”
“What we’re trying to build is a movement that prioritizes the environment regardless of politics. We’re not pushing for some big sweeping package that’s going to magically fix climate change. We don’t believe there’s one silver bullet solution. But five years from now, I would like every Republican on the campaign trail to be talking about climate change as a priority. I would like Congress to be consistently working across the aisle to pass legislation that incentivizes clean energy, that promotes innovation in spaces for carbon capture technology, that provides resources for coastal restoration.”
Making the environment a nonpartisan issue goes back to repairing the rural-urban divide. And it begins with learning. “We have several volunteers from West Virginia on our team who talk about their experience growing up in coal communities and how much that industry has really made itself a part of the state. … Those industries are not just industries in the abstract, they’re job providers. In Texas alone, the oil and gas industry provides nearly two million jobs. So those people obviously need to make a living and they need to be a part of the solution.”
The ACC’s position is that “fossil fuels are not going away overnight. When we talk about a transition, the worker has to be at the center of that and fossil fuel companies are actually trying to promote carbon-capture technology,” Karly said. “It has to be bringing them into the fold and saying, ‘How can we reduce your emissions? How can we promote environmental solutions while not taking away Americans’ livelihood?’ And I think that there’s definitely a strategy out there that works, but it is a delicate balance of including traditional energy workers in this conversation.”
Ultimately, though, Matthews finds that the best way to start making change is to stay informed. This means meeting with legislators, reading up on candidates, and starting a conversation across the aisle. “It’s really important to stay engaged with the political process and research for yourself what is happening in Congress,” Karly said. “Because there are a lot of bipartisan bills on environmental issues that don’t make the headlines like Trump’s tweets do. Digging a little deeper below the surface on the conversation has been really beneficial for me and I think a lot of our activists enjoy doing that too.”