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Young conservatives like me care about climate change. The GOP needs to take notice.

New polls reveal shifting attitudes toward environmental issues among young conservatives.

Plumes of smoke rise from chimneys in an industrial area in Greece.
Alexandros Maragos/Getty Images

As a young conservative woman in my early 20s, I’m often met with surprise when people learn that environmentalism is a top political concern for me.

Conservatives have been slow to address environmental challenges, even though many environmental solutions fit well within a belief in free market solutions. The economic and national security benefits of prioritizing climate change are issues that the GOP can and should embrace; they’re consistent with their ideology. While the left and right may have different reasons behind prioritizing eco-friendly reforms, such reforms are in our collective best interest.

I am not alone in this thinking. It’s no secret that young voters, including young conservative voters, are increasingly concerned about environmental issues. A new poll from Pew Research confirms it, finding that along with holding opinions on climate change that differ from previous generations’, upward of 80 percent of millennial voters favor increasing alternative forms of energy like wind and solar. The same study found that just 44 percent of millennial Republicans favor an increase in offshore drilling, vastly fewer than the 75 percent of baby boomers and older generations who support it.

Though I am conservative, I was raised in a progressive household and didn’t come into conservatism until around my junior year of high school, when I was exposed to philosophy that emphasized personal responsibility but encouraged philanthropy. I have always believed that we should look out for others and care for our communities — in my ideological shift, I realized that we don’t need government to incentivize such behavior. I now believe that when it comes to government, good intentions rarely produce desired results.

My father works in the solar industry as a construction manager for a nonprofit organization with a mission to make solar energy accessible to people of all income levels. Growing up, I was able to see firsthand the advantages clean energy can bring to our country, including energy independence, a growing economy, and steady job creation.

While few millennials identify as conservative, those of us who do feel alienated and left behind by our party’s refusal to address concerns such as climate and conservation. The Republican Party needs to make clear that climate change is happening and is a priority. When and if the party shifts course, I’m sure it will face backlash from older voters — change is rarely comfortable. But this change is necessary if the party hopes to expand its reach within the younger demographic.

The younger generation is much more concerned about climate change

I speak for many in my generation when I say that we were raised around the mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” My school encouraged students to pick up litter in the community on Earth Day and sent saplings home with students to plant on Arbor Day. Bill Nye was a frequent guest on our science class television screens, and next to each trash can in the school was a recycling bin with the message “Once Is Not Enough” printed on it.

During our childhoods, global warming awareness campaigns were everywhere, and conversations regarding the environment were something we were exposed to frequently given the political climate of the early 2000s. Taking care of our planet never seemed like a partisan idea to me; it seemed like common sense. To find that the values that had been ingrained in me from a young age were not universally shared by my political party seemed odd.

Being a conservative who champions environmental challenges often leaves one feeling like an anomaly. Trying to explain conservation or renewable energy to someone who is skeptical of climate change is arduous. On the other hand, our liberal peers are often unwilling to trust innovation and the free market to handle our problems. On both fronts, it’s an uphill battle.

It is often said that people vote their values over their own best interest, but a recent study shows that when it comes to young people and environmentalism, they’re voting for both. I work with a group called the American Conservation Coalition, dedicated to promoting free market environmentalism and reaching young voters. The ACC partnered with the Conservative Energy Network to conduct a poll on millennial attitudes toward energy. It found that 58 percent of young voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who opposed developing alternative forms of energy. What’s more, 79 percent believed that candidates who supported renewable energy policies cared more about American families than those who did not.

Liberals should look to conservatives for climate change solutions

While I admire the left’s concern regarding environmental issues, their approach has often fallen short in achieving real and substantial change. An example of this is the LEED program, which incentivizes buildings to be more energy efficient. When organizations meet LEED certification, they are awarded state and local tax breaks, grants, and expedited permitting. According to USA Today, in an effort to obtain state construction funds, nearly half of the nation’s 100,000 public school districts are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to become green-certified, and in some districts, the certification is even mandated.

Despite the incentives and millions of dollars being poured into this program, research suggests that many LEED-certified schools are no more energy-efficient than those lacking LEED certification. In some cases, they even consume more energy than a conventional school.

Take Washington Middle School in Olympia, Washington. It was projected to use 28 percent less energy in its first two years than its traditional counterparts. It ended up consuming 19 percent more energy than such schools, 65 percent more energy than planned. While programs such as LEED may seem well-intentioned, conservatives don’t judge programs on their intentions — they judge them on results.

Being pro-growth and pro-environment means trusting businesses to do what is best for their bottom line and for the ecosystem without government intervention. It may seem far-fetched, but the data is there: More than 125 companies, including Google, Microsoft, Kellogg, Nike, and Wells Fargo, have voluntarily committed to using 100 percent green energy. In 2014, Delta Airlines voluntarily offset 995,037 tons of CO2e by leading in reforestation projects.

As innovation continues to happen and renewable energy becomes more competitive, more companies will make the shift. Competition — coupled with the future of consumer demand for green practices — ensures that best practices will be followed by corporations when we give them the freedom to do so. If businesses fail to enact environmental solutions, the millennial generation will vote with their dollar and take their business elsewhere.

The future belongs to those who are willing to fight for it and protect it; addressing environmental issues must be of high priority. Young voters are cognizant of this fact, and are increasingly aware of how our actions impact the world around us. As the next generation prepares to settle down and start their own families, we will be passing on the values we hold to our own children. The fact of the matter is that our future may look very different from our own childhoods if we refuse to take action. This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue; this is about solutions to problems that threaten the future we are all invested in.

Danielle Butcher is a conservative political consultant and strategist who aids organizations in communicating their big ideas and empowering leaders. She attended Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she studied political science and rhetoric communications. Serving as chief of staff with the American Conservation Coalition, Danielle merges her love of leadership with her passions for free market capitalism and the environment.

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