Recently, young people across the globe led climate change protests, commanding headlines and dominating photospreads. At the U.N. climate change summit, 16-year-old Swedish activist and Nobel Prize nominee Greta Thunberg delivered a speech that went viral on social media. Earlier this month, the Union of Concerned Scientists published an article titled, “What Is the Climate Strike? An Adult’s Guide to What, Why, and How to Help.”
Wherever one looks, stories about climate change are also stories about the political commitments of the young. Theirs is a generation deeply troubled by what they characterize as failures in the realm of environmental policy that could leave them with a failing planet.
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In U.S. politics, environmental policy has long been the domain of the Democrats. Republicans ceded that area of policy for decades, while both voters and politicians on the right routinely met concerns about global warming with pronounced skepticism, if not conspiracy theories. Just earlier this year, President Donald Trump referred to climate change as a hoax concocted by the Chinese.
Beyond the party’s factual problems with continuing to deny global warming stands another undeniable fact: The majority of Americans and an increasing majority of young Republicans cite climate policy as a major concern. According to a 2018 poll by Monmouth University, 78 percent of Americans believe the world’s climate is changing and causing more extreme weather and rising seas.
Of Republicans between the ages of 23 and 38, almost 60 percent “say that climate change is having an effect on the United States, and 36 percent believe humans are the cause,” reports the New York Times. Young Republicans now place a greater emphasis on addressing climate change than their older counterparts who occupy political positions.
Twenty-one-year-old conservative and climate change advocate Benji Backer represented this group well when he urged Congress in September to lead on climate change. “As a proud American, as a life-long conservative and as a young person, I urge you to accept climate change for the reality it is and respond accordingly. We need your leadership,” he said.
The barometer of public opinion indicates that if Republicans want to survive through next November, they urgently need to engage with Americans’ concerns about global warming.
It’s a good thing, too, because the future of sustainable, affordable clean energy urgently needs Republicans to take the lead.
Conservatives have long rejected the left’s collectivist solutions to climate change, such as those found in the still hazily defined “Green New Deal.” But collectivism isn’t the only approach to reducing carbon emissions. It’s just the one Democrats prefer to talk about.
Republicans now have the opportunity to not just join but lead the climate conversation because the strongest weapon against global warming is also one of the strongest planks of conservatism: Free enterprise fosters innovation.
American clean energy technology has already resulted in positive changes for the planet and put the United States in a position to lead the globe on climate change. This past July, Trump’s speech on environmental leadership rightly pointed out that America leads the world in carbon emissions reductions. Since 2005, the U.S. has cut its emissions by more than 10 percent, in large part thanks to technological developments in energy efficiency and clean energy technology, not new regulations or forced phaseouts of older technologies.
Driven by federal investments in clean energy research, America has realized energy advances that were unimaginable at the turn of the millennium. These efforts too often go unrecognized by both my fellow climate advocates and government leadership.
Our nation has the opportunity to continue progress toward a greener future without sacrificing economic growth or reducing our standard of living. Republicans can promote a zero-emissions future using “technology neutral” standards, rather than forcing particular fuels — and the workers in those sectors — out of America’s energy mix.
As Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has touted: “We know that investing in innovative solutions — like carbon capture, utilization, sequestration, zero emission — works.” Federal investments can incentive innovation “without surrendering one single fuel, one iota of growth, one iota of opportunity.”
Republican-led clean energy policy should continue to focus on lowering bars to innovation by adopting regulatory frameworks that promote, protect and keep pace with American technological innovation. This includes the need to lower the burden of regulations that incent American companies to relocate advanced energy research projects to labs outside the United States. The energy sector should not have to risk losing American jobs or intellectual property to its foreign hosts.
Going forward, the Trump administration should more clearly embrace the science of climate change, make public the emissions reductions already achieved, and implement policies that support the energy industry’s search for cleaner power. Vibrant businesses and creative minds across the country are driving the technology and consumer choices that have helped America reduce its carbon emissions over the last 15 years. American clean energy innovation is the best way to address the problem of global climate change while improving quality of life at home and abroad.
Now it is time for Republican initiatives to sustain the efforts of American energy companies and advance the export of American clean energy technology to the world.
Sarah E. Hunt is the co-founder and CEO of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy.
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