Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Hello, this is How to Save a Planet. I’m Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
Alex Blumberg: And I’m Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast where we ask, what are the things we need to do to address climate change and how do we make those things happen?
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Wade Crowfoot: As the Governor said, we’ve had temperatures explode this summer. You may have learned that we broke a world record in the Death Valley: 130 degrees.]
Alex: So Ayana, have you seen this video?
Ayana: I have not seen this video.
Alex: Get ready for something special. So this is when President Trump was visiting California. This was a couple weeks ago, in the middle of the massive wildfires there that are still underway. And you are listening to California’s Secretary for Natural Resources, Wade Crowfoot, trying to talk to President Trump about climate change and the role climate change is playing in these fires.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Wade Crowfoot: But I think we want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forests, and actually work together with that science. That science is going to be key. Because if we ignore that science we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: Okay. It’ll start getting cooler.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Wade Crowfoot: I wish …]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: You just watch.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Wade Crowfoot: I wish science agreed with you.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: Well, I don’t think science knows, actually.]
Ayana: Oh, Lord.
Ayana: Also, scientists know about seasons. Like, we’re all well aware that it’s autumn now. [laughs]
Alex: And of course—and for Trump, this isn’t super surprising, right? Trump has made his opposition to taking action on climate change a big part of his political persona, right? He talked about it in the presidential debate just this week. Before he was president, he called global warming a hoax. As president, he’s pulling the US out of the Paris climate agreement, which is this big global warming treaty. And of course, Trump is not the only Republican who has taken that stance. Over the years, skepticism on climate science has become core to the identity of a big chunk of Republicans.
Alex: Here is Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio in 2014.
Alex: Here’s Texas Senator Ted Cruz speaking just last year.
Alex: And then Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.
Ayana: Alex, I might need to, like, negotiate therapy sessions into my contract if you’re going to keep subjecting me to stuff like this.
Alex: [laughs] But here’s what’s confusing and weird. It wasn’t always this way. When it comes to the environment in particular and even climate change, Republicans have not always been the party of denial and resistance. In fact, Republicans were central to some of our most foundational pieces of environmental legislation. Republicans like this guy.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Nixon: 18 of the major environmental proposals which I put forward a year ago have still not received final action by the Congress. We can make 1972 the best year ever for environmental progress.]
Alex: So this is Republican President Richard Nixon haranguing Congress to take speedy action.
Ayana: “Send me more environmental legislation and I will sign it immediately,” is what Richard Nixon was saying to Congress.
Alex: And in fact, a lot of what we think of as bedrock environmental laws were passed under Richard Nixon. The Clean Air Act. Guess who it was signed under?
Alex: The Endangered Species Act?
Ayana: Richard Nixon.
Alex: The Environmental Protection Agency?
Ayana: Richard Nixon.
Alex: So, okay, but you can say, well, that was the old Republican party, it’s already been very different. Even in recent history, Republicans have not been the party of reflexive climate science denial. So for example, you know, I know you’ve seen this ad, cause we’ve talked about it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Pelosi: Hi, I’m Nancy Pelosi, lifelong Democrat and speaker of the house.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Newt Gingrich: And I’m Newt Gingrich, lifelong Republican and I used to be speaker.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Pelosi: We don’t always see eye to eye, do we Newt?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Newt Gingrich: No, but we do agree our country must take action to address climate change…]
Ayana: This is so weirdly intimate. Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich are sitting on, like, a loveseat.
Alex: Very close together.
Ayana: Very. Like, their knees are touching.
Alex: And it’s outside.
Ayana: It’s outside, in front of the Capitol.
Alex: Right. And they’re both talking about, like, the urgent need to take action on climate change. This was an ad that ran in 2008.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Pelosi: We need cleaner forms of energy and we need them fast.]
Alex: In that same year, 2008, the Republican candidate for president, John McCain, was saying stuff like this. This was an ad that he ran around this time.
Alex: So as recently as, like, 2008, you had a Republican candidate for president running on a platform that was taking action on climate change. So how did we get from there to where we are today, where you have the current president openly mocking the idea that there is global warming that is human caused. How did this issue move beyond a policy issue to, like, a culture war issue?
Ayana: Yeah. Like, it’s not a “How are we going to do this,” but are we even going to acknowledge that it’s happening?
Alex: And so today on the show, we attempt to answer this question, “How did this happen?” by revisiting a couple of the key moments that got us here. And also, we’re going to talk about how this all might change. You know, if we want meaningful action on climate change, it’s going to be pretty important that one of our two major parties isn’t openly hostile to the idea that it’s even happening. So how do we move Republican opinion here? We’re going to hear from two Republicans who have a plan to do just that. That’s all coming up.
Alex: So today we’re going to answer the question: How did we arrive at the point when the Republican Party not only resists action on climate change, but in many cases sees climate skepticism as a kind of badge of honor?
Ayana: So our reporter Rachel Waldholz has been looking into this question, and she’s here to talk us through some key moments in how we actually got to this point.
Alex: Hey, Rachel.
Rachel Waldholz: Hey guys.
Ayana: Hey, Rachel.
Alex: I can’t wait to hear this story.
Ayana: So Rachel, how did it happen that we went from Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency to Trump suggesting that climate change isn’t real?
Rachel: Yeah, it is a really good question. And there is no simple answer. You know, any attempt to answer it is going to collapse decades of history into—what do we have? We have twenty minutes?
Alex: Exactly. Right. Yeah, and I understand the need to caveat, but come on, just tell us what happened.
Rachel: Okay, so I was looking into this, I found sort of three moments that I feel like really help explain this transition from Nixon to where we are today. The first moment I want to take you to is 1980—and Ronald Reagan is running for President…
Rachel: It’s 1980, and Ronald Reagan is running for president.
Ayana: That’s the year I was born. The year everything changed.
Rachel: It’s been downhill since then.
Ayana: That sounds about right.
Rachel: So Reagan comes into office at this moment when the economy is just a mess. The US has been dealing with inflation and wage stagnation, so stagflation. And Reagan ran on a promise to fix things by getting the government out of the way.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ronald Reagan: If we’re going to stop inflation, we must do it now. Not with bigger government, it takes better government.]
[Advertisement: Only one man has the proven experience we need. Ronald Reagan for president. Let’s make America great again.]
Alex: Make America Great Again!
Ayana: Oh my God, I didn’t realize that was a Reagan slogan that Trump had repurposed!
Alex: I didn’t either!
Rachel: Yeah. It was one of his slogans from his 1980 campaign.
Rachel: Sp Reagan comes into the office at this moment when the economy is a mess. The US has been dealing with inflation and economic stagnation—so stagflation. And Reagan ran on a promise to fix things—by getting the government out of the way.
Rachel: Reagan argued that there was one big reason that the US was in such an economic mess in the first place … too much government regulation. Regulation restricting businesses and strangling the economy. And that view extended to environmental regulations. Reagan tried to roll back a lot of the environmental regulations Nixon had signed.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ronald Reagan: Well, I think the Environmental Protection Agency, in many instances, has gone to an extreme.]
Rachel: And something big is happening here. This is the moment that the Republican party stops being the party of Nixon, the party that hat was open to and even supportive of *ambitious* environmental regulation, And becomes the party of Reagan, which sees *most* regulations as an unnecessary burden on economic freedom. And this shift will have major repercussions for the debate over climate change from this point forward. So that’s what I’m calling pivotal moment number one. Okay… let’s skip ahead to our next moment.
Alex: Alright let’s do it.
Rachel: It’s 1988, an election year, and global warming is just entering the national conversation. James Hansen, a NASA scientist, testifies before before congress that Global Warming is real. And it’s already happening.
Rachel: And it’s this blockbuster testimony in front of Congress. It happens to happen in a heat wave. It gets tons of media attention. Time Magazine puts The Endangered Earth on its cover as its man of the year.
Ayana: Oh, wow. The only time the earth has ever been referred to as a man to get on the cover of Time.
Rachel: It was Planet of the Year, to be fair.
Ayana: Okay, good.
Rachel: Yeah. And in response to all that, Reagan’s vice president, so George H. W. Bush is running for president, and he promises to be, like, an environmental president.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, George H. W. Bush: Some say these problems are too big, that it’s impossible for an individual or even a nation as great as ours to solve the problem of global warming. My response is simple. It can be done. And we must do it.]
Rachel: In fact, he also—he promises to combat the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.
Ayana: That’s such a good line.
Alex: That is good.
Ayana: It’s such a good line.
Rachel: And he wins. And so George H. W. Bush comes into office saying he will take action on climate change. His administration joins international negotiations to deal with global warming. And a lot of people hoped for some kind of big agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That agreement was going to be negotiated at this big conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. But then comes the second pivot moment—when the fossil fuel industry enters the fight.
Jay Turner: They realized what the potential consequences of seriously taking on climate change would mean for their businesses and their bottom lines and their shareholders. And you start to see this mobilization on the right.
Rachel: That’s Jay Turner a historian who co-authored a book on Republicans and the environment called The Republican Reversal which really helped me understand this history.
Rachel: In 1989, Exxon and other industry groups form this thing called the Global Climate Coalition, to basically lobby against action on global warming. And the group’s membership is like a who’s who of the entire US business community. You know, it includes the auto industry, major utilities, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Coal Association, the Chamber of Commerce. And they joined forces with a bunch of conservative think tanks who were making the argument that’s familiar from Reagan: you know, that regulations are economically dangerous, especially when it comes to regulating fossil fuels, which touch almost everything. You know, they argued that the science on global warming wasn’t clear enough yet to justify taking that kind of step and argument was really attractive to lots of policy makers and it really swayed key members of the Bush White House. And historian Jay Turner says for the Bush administration to entertain that argument, that actually wasn’t totally unreasonable, given what we knew at the time.
Jay: The state of climate science was uncertain at the time. I mean, there was a strong scientific consensus that, you know, people were changing the climate, but how fast the climate was going to change, when the kind of human fingerprints on climate change were going to become apparent, and what the consequences were going to be, that was much less clear. And so, you know, I think for the Bush administration kind of doing a cost-benefit analysis, it was much easier to see the cost of regulation as opposed to the consequences of not taking action, and sort of acting with precaution. You know, they prioritized what they saw as economic interests at the time.
Ayana: This—I mean, this is something that, you know, we need to keep talking about: this idea that people talk about how expensive it is to address climate change, but without ever talking about how expensive it is if we don’t address it.
Ayana: It’s like the cheating way to do a cost-benefit analysis. It’s like, only talk about the costs. Which is clearly not going to lead us to the answers that we need.
Rachel: But at the time back in the late ’80s, that argument worked. You know, they managed to convince members of the Bush Administration that the science just wasn’t solid enough to justify taking action.
Rachel: So in 1992, at this big international climate conference in Rio, the US refused to sign onto an agreement to start cutting carbon emissions. You know, they agreed to set up this system of monitoring emissions and negotiating cuts in the future. And that was a big step forward, but it wasn’t what had been on the table.
Alex: And the pattern of sort of like, we’re all gonna gather, and then we’re all gonna talk, and then we’re all going to kick the can down the road again. That was the precedent for the next three decades.
Ayana: The beginning of the end.
Rachel: Yeah. I mean, the point about this moment that is so tragic is that about half of the carbon that humanity has, like, ever released into the atmosphere happened since this moment, since the early ’90s, right?
Rachel: Something like 50 percent has been emitted since James Hansen first gave that testimony in 1988.
Ayana: That’s so insane.
Rachel: And the thing is, once industry enters this scene in the George H. W. Bush administration, they’re all in. That industry campaign continues for the next two-plus decades. And it’s not just big corporations like Exxon there’s also a couple less well-known players: the Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch, who were major supporters of libertarian causes, and who’s industrial empire is a major carbon emitter. And just remember those names, because they’ll pop up again.
Rachel: Anyway, the fossil fuel campaign really heats up in the late ’90s when the Democratic Clinton administration is negotiating a new international climate deal— it’s called the Kyoto Protocol. Basically, they were trying to negotiate those emissions cuts that the Bush administration had put off into the future. And as the fossil fuel industry mobilizes to stop this agreement, they don’t just argue that Kyoto will be economically harmful, they also actively sow doubt about the science.
Rachel: So just to give you a taste, in 1998, the New York Times got hold of this memo—and this was highlighted in the podcast Drilled, which covers this whole misinformation campaign in detail and you should definitely go listen. So this memo is by a group of folks from both industry and conservative think tanks, including representatives from Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute, the main oil industry lobbying group. They called it the Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan.
Alex: Doesn’t sound nefarious. It’s an action plan!
Rachel: And the memo says, quote, “Victory will be achieved when” quote, “those promoting the Kyoto Protocol on the basis of extant science appear to be out of touch with reality.”
Ayana: So this is like the literal seeding of doubt and uncertainty where there was none. This is [bleep] terrifying.
Alex: It’s, like, literally laying it out.
Ayana: I mean, we all knew this, right? This misinformation campaign and, like, let’s pretend the science isn’t sure. And like, yikes!
Rachel: Yeah. And this is the kicker. So quote, “Unless climate change becomes a nonissue, meaning the Kyoto proposal is defeated and there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change, there may be no moment when we can declare victory for our efforts.” End quote.
Ayana: We can’t declare victory until there is no action on climate change, is the summary of that. That’s vile.
Rachel: And it was super effective. You know, that message that the science isn’t clear, that it isn’t settled enough to justify the economic risk of new regulations, that really takes root. And not just with Republicans, but with many Democrats and lots of the public. In the end, the Clinton Administration didn’t even submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification. Then in the 2000s, the George W. Bush administration was maybe the most fossil fuel-friendly administration in US history. You know, it had two oil men, Bush and Vice President, Dick Cheney at the top. And they actually had a former oil lobbyist coordinating environmental policy in the White House. So it was clear that not much was going to happen on the climate front. But even at this point, you know, in the early- to mid-2000s, climate change was still a policy debate.
Rachel: It wasn’t yet the overwhelmingly polarized cultural issue that it is today. And that brings us to 2008, which is our next and final pivotal moment. And to tell this part, I’m going to introduce you to someone, a Republican politician who experienced this shift firsthand. Bob Inglis was a Republican Congressman representing a very red district in South Carolina.
Bob Inglis: Well, it’s a wonderful manufacturing district with people that really are holding onto God and guns, you know? And happily so.
Rachel: So Bob Inglis enters our story because 2008 was one of those moments when it seemed possible that you could have action on climate change.
Alex: Despite the lobbying, despite all the interests that had come in to fight against it, despite all that, still there was a consensus building that we need to take action.
Rachel: Yeah. And Bob Inglis was one of those Republican politicians who wanted to take action on climate change. He had what he considered a conservative climate plan. But when he went home to talk to his district about it, he wasn’t prepared for what he found. It turned out that the politics of climate change had shifted beneath him. Climate change was always an uphill battle with his constituents. You know, they were worried about regulation or taxes, but it had never been so personal.
Bob: It seemed that I had crossed to the other side, that I had crossed that cultural barrier that had been erected, just saying that climate change was real and let’s do something about it.
Rachel: I mean, it wasn’t like there was a ton of Republican party support anyway. Like, what made this different?
Bob: So I agree with you. It wasn’t like there was overwhelming support, but it wasn’t culturally marked as something that’s not our tribe. Our tribe doesn’t talk about climate change. Our tribe talks about “Drill, baby, drill!”
Rachel: And to Inglis, there was a clear explanation for what happened. The Koch brothers. Remember we talked about them earlier. And we’ve mentioned how every time there was a new attempt to address climate change, the fossil fuel industry ramped up its efforts to stop that, right? So Rio, Kyoto. And around the time Inglis was talking to his district about his plan, there was another plan in Congress that was getting a ton of attention. It was called cap and trade. And for the first time it would have put a limit on greenhouse gas emissions in the US and that would have been a huge threat to the Koch brothers’ business empire. So they were revving up opposition and they’d found a golden moment…the financial crisis.
Alex: I remember this. The Great Recession is what it later came to be known as, but in this moment, like, right around 2008, 2009, it was just terrifying. Like all of a sudden these huge institutions were just, like, failing, these gigantic banks. And on top of that, the only way to stave off what people at the time were referring to as possibly the next Great Depression was to take those same institutions that had behaved incredibly recklessly and gotten themselves into trouble and bail them out to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. And it just struck people as like, you guys are the ones who got us into this mess, and now we have to, like, lend you all this money so that you don’t drag us all down with you. It just felt, like, unbelievably unfair to people in both parties.
Rachel: Yeah. And the Koch brothers really took advantage of that anger on the Republican side by funding the Tea Party—this conservative revolt against the bank bailouts, against President Obama, against his trademark healthcare plan—and—against cap and trade. So one group they funded, Americans for Prosperity, mounted this campaign in 2009 and 2010 called the “Hot Air Tour,” where they took this hot air balloon around to rally people against the cap and trade bill in Congress. You know, they were telling people that it was going to raise the cost of gas. It was going to raise the cost to heat their homes, you know, and not just that it was going to cost you money, but that it was going to make your very way of life impossible.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Why do you feel it’s your right to tell us what to drive, what to eat, where we can live, and how much energy to use to heat our homes? If you’re tired of the hypocrisy of Al Gore, please join Americans for Prosperity and sign our petition.]
Rachel: So they were literally going from town to town with a hot air balloon and, rallying people against cap and trade. They called it “cap and tax.”
Ayana: Evil geniuses. They name everything so well. Like, the way they phrase it, you’re like, why would—it is hot air. It is a terrible tax. Why would we …?
Alex: Cap and tax.
Ayana: Their PR is so good.
Rachel: Yeah and it is very successful. Bob Inglis lost his seat in the primary, and cap and trade died in the senate. And Bob Inglis and the historians I spoke to talked about this as like a watershed, right?. And that moment when cap and trade gets wrapped up in the Tea Party movement, like, Bob Inglis and the historians I spoke to talked about this as like a watershed, right? Like, this is the moment when climate change shifts from a policy debate to sort of a culture war debate, when it becomes like a part of your identity, whether you believe in it or not. And Bob Inglis talks about it as just sort of like, perfect—sort of perfect timing for the Koch brothers to come in. This is how he describes it.
Bob: In 2008, high tide of discontent with the government and distrust. And all they need to do is spend a little bit of money to create a wave of rejection, cultural rejection of climate change. And it came over that seawall and shorted out all the climate change equipment. And we’ve been bailing ever since. That’s really what happened. So they just saw their opportunity and they took it. And it was a well-timed shot they took. And they succeeded in delaying climate now for well over a decade.
Rachel: And so that moment, this sort of third pivotal moment, is when action on climate change became not just a threat to the economy, but a threat to your way of life, you know, to your identity.
Ayana: So Rachel, thank you. This has been incredibly interesting/completely horrifying.
Alex: [laughs] Right. But it really does help explain, I think, how we got here. Like, I feel like now I have this, like, I have a much better sense of sort of like, Oh, that is what happened. It was like these two strands of sort of like corporate money and conservative ideology that merged. And then they found this sort of like, perfect. Um, Inflection point with the financial crisis. Thanks so much for digging into us digging in with us and explaining it to us.
Rachel: Yeah, of course.
Ayana: Of course, like, now I won’t be able to sleep, but I remain grateful. [laughs]
Alex: So the question, I think, that arises now is okay, so what next?
Ayana: Yeah. Where do we go from here?
Alex: Where do we go from here? And I think a useful thing to consider is this one piece of context. So remember we were talking about Richard Nixon at the very beginning of the episode, and how all this environmental legislation happened under his watch. It wasn’t just because he was this huge environmentalist on his own. It was because there was this massive widespread demand by people for action. You know, Rachel Carson had written her blockbuster silent spring, all about how pesticides were endangering birds. Smog was a huge problem.
Ayana: And we even had a river, the Cuyahoga River that had caught on fire because of pollution. So we were seeing across the country, all of these major signs that something was really wrong and it was threatening our health and well-being.
Alex: And in 1970, in fact, you had the first Earth Day, where 20 million people turned out.
Ayana: So for Nixon to push for strong environmental policies was actually just following the public will, right? It wasn’t a hard political decision like it maybe was for George H. W. Bush and Bob Inglis, it was actually good politics for Nixon.
Alex: And Bob Inglis says that that is his goal, to make acting on climate change, to turn it from being bad politics to good politics, no matter which party you belong to. And the way he’s doing that, he currently runs this organization called RepublicEN.org that’s Republic and then the letters E N dot org, which is trying to build grassroots support for conservative climate policies, to talk directly to conservative voters and make the climate and issue they care about and demand action on from their own representatives.
Ayana: But, he says, this is something that people who aren’t conservative but who care about the climate should care about, because it’s really hard to pass meaningful legislation unless you have at least some bipartisan support.
Bob: What I’d say the progressives who want to try that power play and shoot between those trees, it’s a low percentage shot. I mean, if you want it durable, it’ll be like every other major piece of environmental legislation in this country. It’s bipartisan. This is what we say to our people: If you’re conservative and you care about climate change, you’re among the most important people in the world because it ain’t going to happen without you. Really, that’s what I wish for people on the left to realize. If you’ve got an uncle who’s coming to Thanksgiving—if we’re all able to have Thanksgiving dinner this year—and he’s a conservative, we need him. We’ve got plenty of progressives, but we need your uncle Charlie. And so send him our way, help him to hear it in his own language. If you can’t speak that language, send him to us. We’ll talk to him in the language of conservatism.
Alex: And Bob Inglis says that he sees some hope here. He thinks that the decade that started with the Tea Party has run its course, and that the Republican Party is actually starting to change its tune on climate, especially, he says, when it comes to young Republicans.
Ayana: And after the break, we’ll meet one of these young conservatives who made me gasp several times as he was explaining how he’d watched his party become the party of climate denial, and what he’s thinking of doing about it.
Alex: And I promise, when you hear this guy talk, you will not believe that he and Donald Trump share the same party. That’s coming up after the break.
Ayana: Welcome back from the break.
Alex: In the second half of the show, we’re going to talk to a guy named Benji Backer. Benji Backer is a young conservative who is trying to bring his beloved Republican Party on board with climate change. He founded something called the American Conservation Coalition, ACC, which organizes young conservatives who care about the environment.
Alex: And Benji says he became a conservative, not because he grew up an overtly political household, but just from watching his parents from a young age. They ran a business, and they would complain a lot about how government regulation was getting in the way of their business’s success. And young Benji Backer took that to heart.
Benji Backer: In fact, when I was 10, I started campaigning for John McCain, and door-knocking and making phone calls. And I was the youngest person that I knew that was doing that sort of thing. And it was all from just an interest level in the presidential debates in that year that I have no explanation for. My parents were never involved, my sisters who are older than me were never involved.
Ayana: That’s incredible. Are we just gonna let him get away with, like, “When I was 10 and I started knocking on doors for John McCain.”
Alex: I’m just imagining an adult opening the door and here’s 10 year old Benji.
Benji: Well, there was some hesitancy. There was some campaigns that didn’t want me to work for them because they thought that the optics of that were a little strange [laughs] Looking back on it, I mean, even as someone who was active when they were 10, I would find it very strange for—to see someone active at 10.
Alex: When did you realize that your views on the environment and on climate change were sort of out of step with the views of most of the people in your party? What was that moment?
Benji: Yeah. My family really instilled environmentalism in me at a young age, and from a little cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin on a beautiful lake, to going to national parks every once in a while. I really figured out firsthand that humans have a massive impact on the environment. So I remember in elementary school, all my research papers were on climate change and the environment. And every summer when my parents, you know, wanted me to keep busy and do something, I would be working on projects and my projects were researching birds and researching other animals. And I went to CPAC…
Benji: Just, like, the Conservative Political Action Conference. I spoke at it when I was 14.
Alex: It’s a big huge—one of the biggest sort of conservative gatherings. Big, huge event, yeah.
Benji: Yeah. It’s the biggest conservative event of the year. And I was asked to speak about something not related to the environment. And then I realized after going to CPAC for a couple of years and speaking there, that there was never a topic around the environment being discussed. And if it was, it was around climate change denial. And that really frustrated me.
Ayana: It sounds like, you know, you’re trying to sync these two core parts of your belief system or these two topics that you care really deeply about. Are there ever moments where you feel like, you know, you’re hanging out with conservatives and you kind of don’t want to even admit you’re an environmentalist? Does it ever feel like you have to sort of come out as an environmentalist, or do I just let this go?
Benji: Yeah, the political world for me has not always been the easiest to be outspoken in. There have been a lot of conversations, especially before I started the American Conservation Coalition, where I’d be on a Tea Party bus tour, which I did when I was in early high school, admittedly, and I …
Ayana: Why do you say “admittedly” like that?
Benji: I’m not sure I share those values anymore. And I …
Ayana: And which ones? How so?
Benji: I think just the way that politics is approached from that community is just very flawed. It’s all about owning the libs, right? And as I’ve gotten older and become more exposed to more types of people and moved to Seattle where there are people of very different political viewpoints than my own, I’ve realized that liberals aren’t bad people, that people on the left who care about issues oftentimes care about them in the same way I do. And oftentimes there are solutions that we can both agree on. Not all the time, but some of the time.
Ayana: That’s really interesting to hear. And so you were about to tell us, before that detour, that you were on the Tea Party Express bus, and …
Benji: Yeah. I remember going on that bus, and talking with the head of the Tea Party Express at the time about how I really cared about climate change in the environment. And, you know, the head of the Tea Party Express at the time didn’t—I mean, she didn’t, like, go after me on it, she just, like, disregarded it, because she thought that that was, like, a very liberal position to have. And that was the first time I was like, wait a second. Why is caring about the environment liberal? And at that point, I did kind of realize, okay, wait a second, I’ve been active in politics I think at that point for, like, four years, and I haven’t heard any conservatives talk about the environment. And now the first time I ever bring it up, I have, like, a little bit of a awakening of wait, do other conservatives see this as a liberal issue? And, you know, why is that? Because to me, as I’m sitting here looking out at the trees right now as we talk, like, there’s nothing inherently political about the environment.
Ayana: How could you not like trees?
Benji: How could you not like trees? How could you not like water? How could you not like the mountains? And to be fair, conservatives do like those things. And so I was just shocked. And I became more shocked as the years went on, as I talked to more people about why they felt disenfranchised from the environment. And to me, that is one of the biggest failures of the 21st century is making the environment a politicized issue.
Benji: But the more I talked to conservatives, I realized why that divide was and absolutely why I needed to get involved to fix it.
Alex: So when you went to college, you decided to form something called the American Conservation Coalition. Was there a moment where you decided to form that? Or was that just sort of the accumulation of these experiences that you’ve been having as a young conservative?
Benji: I moved out to Seattle for school and most people are like …
Ayana: Hotbed of conservatism.
Benji: Hotbed of conservatism. Yes, of course. And Donald Trump’s the Republican nominee. And I say to myself as I’m sitting in an environmental class. It was a business environmentalism class about startups in the environmental space, and I sat in that class, as most college students do, on their computer, probably not paying as much attention to class as they should have been. And I thought to myself, this needs to change, like, now. And there is no one that’s standing up to fight for the environment on the conservative side of things. And Donald Trump doesn’t talk about the environment. And so at least we have four more years of Republican politics with the environment not being at the forefront. And I was like, I don’t know of any conservative-leaning environmental organization that’s out there. So I’m just going to start my own. So I bought a domain name during class and—on GoDaddy.com and I tweeted out, “Hey, I’m starting this environmental organization. Who wants to join me?” And the rest is history.
Alex: Give me the most extreme reactions in both directions from, like, your fellow conservatives.
Benji: I mean, it was remarkable. Before ACC even had a name, Grover Norquist was already going after us on Twitter.
Alex: And Grover Norquist is, like, one of the leading sort of like power players in the conservative movement. He’s been in politics for decades as sort of like a central figure of the American conservative movement and Republican Party.
Benji: Especially behind the scenes on Capitol Hill. He’s got a huge sway with electeds. And I was just, like, thrown into the thrust of it. Like, I was a freshman in college getting attacked by Grover Norquist. And I had no idea why. Like, I was like, I just started this little thing that has done nothing. Like, what am I doing right or wrong here?
Alex: And how many people were joining you? Who are the people who are joining you? What did that look like?
Benji: It was incredible the amount of support we were getting. The support was overwhelming from young Republicans. We started having outreach from members of Congress. And then I had, like, The Nature Conservancy’s external affairs director, Kameran Onley and, you know, some of these bigger names in the environment and conservative world start supporting our efforts. And I was like, this is going to be a lot bigger than I thought.
Alex: It also puts you in an increasingly rare position, I think, in American politics, where you are finding yourself in as something of a bridge position between sort of these groups that sort of historically don’t really sort of talk to each other because of, like, the dynamics that you were talking about earlier. Like, you’ve got, like, massive numbers of young Republicans, and then you’ve got, like, these environmental groups that historically at least are sort of like associated with the left. And that was sort of crystallized in this—sort of like perhaps the greatest sort of example of that is when you were testifying …
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Chairman: Thank you, Mr. Backer.]
Alex: … in front of Congress.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Benji Backer: Good morning. My name is Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition. And I would like to thank Chairman Keating, Ranking Member Kinzinger, Chairman Castor and Ranking Member Graves for holding this very important hearing.]
Alex: It was you and Greta Thunberg, and then these two other youth climate activists, Jamie Margolin and Vic Barrett. And, you’re all testifying in front of Congress, but you’re from very different backgrounds.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Benji Backer: I’m a lifelong conservative activist, but like most of my generation, regardless of political affiliation, I believe climate change is real. I believe humans are making an impact. And with global emissions rising 1.7 percent last year, we’re at a crossroads in history. My generation doesn’t care about the politics around climate change. We want productive discussions, realistic answers and sound policies.]
Alex: And I’m curious, like, what was that like for you?
Benji: Yeah. You had a Republican activist sitting alongside the Time Person of the Year who leans heavily to the left. And then two people that …
Ayana: Greta Thunberg.
Benji: Yeah, Greta Thunberg. And two other people, Jamie Margolin and Vic Barrett, that are probably even to the left of her in terms of their politics, all sitting on the same panel, not hating each other, talking about climate change and talking about it to Republicans and Democrats. I mean, that is in itself, incredibly powerful, especially since everyone was 21 or younger. And it just—it resembled the generational want that our, you know, Gen Z and millennials have to fix this issue. And my constituency doesn’t see it as political. Theirs doesn’t see it as political. And we all sat on that panel and fought for those values together in our own ways. It was awesome.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Benji Backer: We need to decarbonize fossil fuel emissions, increase the number of nuclear and hydro power plants, continue developing solar and wind and encourage research and development into other clean energy technologies. It’s easier to export innovative American technologies than burdensome regulations to developing nations. We must also understand the privilege Americans bring into this conversation. Across the globe, those who can most easily adapt to climate change are wealthy and live in developed countries.]
Benji: For the first time young conservatives who cared about the environment had a voice on Capitol Hill. And because Greta was there, there were a lot of news stories about it. So not only were the elected officials hearing about it, but the public was hearing about it as well. So I was just excited to be there. And what I was really most excited about was calling out both sides .
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Benji Backer: To my fellow conservatives: the climate is changing. It’s time to claim our seat at the table and develop smart, limited government policies to establish American leadership on this issue. There is a reasonable conservative approach to climate change, and we need to embrace it. To those on the left, without your leadership, this would not be receiving the attention that it deserves, but now it’s time for solutions. Politicizing climate change has deepened the partisan divide and delayed real action. If you truly want to address climate change, work with conservatives who want to champion reforms. To Congress, on climate change …]
Benji: I do feel like both sides have failed us on climate change, and I knew that that was a unique perspective for that conversation.
Ayana: It’s interesting to hear you say that because, I mean, I think a lot of people agree with that. I mean, that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in, right? Because, like, no one has, you know, effectively addressed the problem, and there are lots of reasons for that. But I think you’ll find that more people agree with that than you might imagine, because otherwise we would have solved it already, right? Like, both parties have been in power during the last three decades when we knew the science so, so clearly. And I think your testimony was so powerful because it was very blunt, right? It was very straightforward, the way that you spoke directly to President Trump, and said, like, sort of get it together.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Benji Backer: To President Trump: climate science is real. It’s not a hoax. It’s accepted that humans are having a negative impact on our climate. As a proud American, as a lifelong conservative, and as a young person, I urge you to accept climate change for the reality it is and respond accordingly.]
Ayana: How did that part go over? Did you get a lot of blow back for that?
Benji: Honestly, I was asked to take it out. And …
Ayana: And did you just—did you pretend to take it out, but then really say it?
Ayana: Oh! [laughs] That’s pretty ballsy.
Benji: I guess in general, especially as we get closer to the election, I have conservative values, but I will never ever not say something or do something because it doesn’t fit a tribal culture. I just—I’m not going to do that. And my organization, the people who want to join it, want to join it because of the values we have. And they don’t want to join it because of some partisan reasoning. And so the strongest statements in that testimony that were quoted the most times that made the most impact were the ones that I was asked to take out. And I was just never going to do that.
Ayana: So did you, like, sneak in with a different copy in your pocket, or did you just memorize it?
Benji: No, I did take a different copy.
Ayana: This is a very impressive bait and switch. I like it.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Benji Backer: The health of the environment affects all of us, regardless of where we live, our background or our political affiliation. It’s time for Americans to join together, find solutions on climate change and protect our planet for generations to come. Thank you.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Chairman: Thank all the witnesses for their testimony and their urgency. It came through…]
Alex: This was like an extraordinary moment, because you had both a conserve—you had somebody from the right and somebody from the left, both talking about this issue. And I agree that it was extraordinary, and I think we probably both agree that it shouldn’t be extraordinary, right? [laughs]
Alex: So why …
Ayana: And there was a point in time when it wouldn’t have been that extraordinary.
Alex: Yes, exactly. And so, what is your take? Like, why do you think the Republican party is so totally opposed to action on climate change?
Benji: The environment is seen as a Democrat team issue, then the Republican team has to be anti that. So then when someone like me comes up and says, “Oh, I actually do believe in climate change. And I do care about these issues,” it comes across as liberal because everything they’re hearing is that the environmental movement is liberal. And if you look the statistics, this study was done by Duke University. In 2014, 36 percent of Republicans believed in climate change. Which is much higher now, but when they were presented with a market-based solution, the belief in climate change doubled to 70 percent. So the point of that study was that conservatives didn’t necessarily not believe in climate change, they just had this automatic disapproval of the issue because they felt like the only possible solutions were ones that they didn’t like. And instead of coming up with a solution to be an alternative to those that they don’t like, they just kind of either stay in silence or allow the extreme people to take control over the conversation.
Ayana: How much of that do you think is, like, not understanding the science? Or is it really just like, you know, an “owning the libs” thing, as you say? Like, do they get the science?
Benji: In Congress?
Ayana: Or is it just sort of like, it’s a political choice?
Benji: In Congress, most Republicans that I have worked with behind closed doors and now out in front in a lot of cases, do believe in climate change. And they do believe it’s an issue. They’re not sure how to approach it with some of their voters because…
Ayana: So Republican members of Congress behind closed doors, believe in climate change. They get that the science is telling us we really got to do something, this is dangerous. But they don’t know how to talk about it. They’re worried their constituents will sort of rebel against them and they’ll be out of office?
Benji: Yes. So I’ll give you an example. There’s a Republican elected official in a red state that I’m not going to name who has talked to me a bunch about this. And he or she basically said to me…
Ayana: Not even revealing the gender. You’re good at this.
Benji: Basically said to me, the left of center groups like LCV and The Sierra Club will not support me no matter what I do. But those are the ones I hear from. I only hear from them. And then he or she also said that never once on an environmental piece of legislation has he or she had more than a couple—if even a couple—members of his or her own constituency reach out on environmental issues saying, “I’m a Republican, and I care about you voting yes on a wildlife bill.”
Benji: Never. And so if he or she is only hearing from the left on the environmental issues and nobody from the right, then what is that person left to do? Because it’s really hard to figure it out.
Ayana: I don’t know. Have a backbone and just, like, do the right thing and not worry about getting re-elected?
Benji: Well, that’s asking a lot out of members of Congress, but I’m with you. That would be awesome. But they do—elected officials unfortunately do care about getting re-elected.
Ayana: I’m well aware, yeah.
Benji: As you know. And so it’s just a matter of how do we get more conservatives to speak up on these issues and say—especially in younger generations, this is our issue. We don’t see it as political. And we need you to take action. And we are your voters, we are your volunteers, we are your constituency. And we’re calling you, we’re emailing you, we’re visiting your office because we want you to take action now. There hasn’t been any of that until ACC was created.
Ayana: You know, based on your experience with the Republican Party as it’s been becoming, you know, the party of climate denial, and sort of your disagreements with the stance or lack of proposals on climate, do you still consider yourself a Republican, and who are you voting for for president in 2020?
Benji: In 2020, I do not consider myself a Republican. And that might be the first time I’ve ever said that. But …
Ayana: Wow. How does that feel?
Benji: Weird. Because I consider myself a conservative, and I’m not quite sure that Republican politics in 2020 on the national level—there are great members of Congress that I really, really like, I’m not quite sure that at the national level, my values are represented at all by the Republican Party on a lot of issues. Outside of the environment, as well. I do not know what I’m going to do in the presidential election. I’m very much conflicted in many ways. And at this point, I do know that I—if the election were held today would not vote for Donald Trump.
Ayana: Would you vote for Biden?
Benji: My likely option will be writing somebody in, um, or sitting out that presidential race. I do have some major disagreements with the Democratic Party on a lot of issues, and those have not changed. That has not changed.
Ayana: So there’s one question that we ask every guest on the show, and that is: given everything you know about both climate science and climate policy or politics, how screwed are we?
Benji: I have a lot of hope. I have a lot of hope because I think companies are moving in the right direction. I think our generation is moving in the right direction. I think that our political scene, despite the presidential election, is moving in the right direction. I do not believe we’re screwed. I believe that we have a lot of opportunity to fight this together. I think that we’re going to fight this together. The more that young people get elected, the more we’re going to have answers on this. The more companies that stand up because the Gen Z and millennial generations are standing up themselves when they’re voting with their dollars, that’s going to make a big impact. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I do not believe we’re screwed. I believe we’re going to fix this, and I think that there’s a lot of steps in the right direction that are happening, that are being overshadowed by the national political dialogue.
Alex: So what did you think of that conversation with Benji Backer?
Ayana: The thing that I agree with very strongly is when he describes how Republicans, conservatives, do care about nature, do have a connection to the land. Like, whether it’s hunting or farming or walking in the woods, like, it’s completely absurd to have caring about nature be the provenance of only one political party. So the more that people of all political parties can be contacting their representatives saying like, no really, we need to do something about climate change—that changes the whole political calculus. So the number one call to action we have for you this week is to vote.
Alex: And if you’re confused about whether you’re registered, where you’re registered, you can go to Vote.org and you can find all of that stuff out, how to get absentee ballots, how to vote by mail, where your polling stations are, et cetera. And also, of course, you should check out the websites of the two people that we interviewed who are trying to make climate a priority for the Republican Party. Benji Backer’s organization, who you just heard from, the American Conservation Coalition, that is at acc.eco. You can see the American Climate Contract, which is sort of like his group’s answer to the Green New Deal. That’s acc.eco.
Ayana: And then Bob Inglis’s organization RepublicEN.org.
Alex: If you’re having a family gathering and you have a conservative family member and you’re always getting in fights, send them to Bob and his organization.
Ayana: He’ll handle it for you.
Ayana: And they also have a podcast called EcoRight Speaks, which is a weekly show about climate from a conservative perspective.
Alex: Speaking of podcasts, we also mentioned the Drilled podcast briefly during our episode. You should definitely check it out. And we’ll put all this information in the show notes. And, special bonus, we will have a link to that memo we read, the one that was leaked in 1998.
Ayana: Oh, yeah. You can read the whole thing and sort of be as horrified as I was.
Alex: Gasp aloud. Make sure you’re sitting down. In a future episode, we’re going to be diving into democratic politics, especially the Green New Deal and what it has to do with the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. We have to do the credits ourselves today. We don’t have anybody to pawn them off on.
Ayana: I know. I’m ready.
Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet—with a number 2—on Twitter and Instagram, or you can email us at Howtosaveaplanet—not the number two. T-O, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ayana: How to Save a Planet is co-hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, along with the magnificent Alex Blumberg.
Ayana: Our reporters are Rachel Waldholz, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.
Alex: Sound design and mixing for this episode by Sam Bair with original music by Emma Munger. Full music credits are available at our website.
Ayana: Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib.
Alex: Thanks to Anthony Leiserowitz for helping us understand some of this history.
Ayana: This episode also relied on phenomenal reporting from a number of places, including the books Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, Kochland by Christopher Leonard, Dark Money by Jane Mayer, and the podcast Drilled, hosted by Amy Westervelt.
Alex: Special thanks to Rachel Strom. Hello Rachel. Thank you all for listening. Catch you next week. Catch ya.
Ayana: Cute. Cute. Catch ya.