In 2013, a 15-year-old named Benji Backer shot onto the conservative media scene, appearing on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show claiming to have been bullied by his high school teachers in Appleton, Wis., over his conservative beliefs. Sporting a suit and neatly combed blond hair, Backer shared his made-for-cable story, shyly spelling out a curse word he alleged a teacher had said to him. That begot a blogging gig for the right-wing organization FreedomWorks, a speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and appearances with the Wisconsin Tea Party.
It would be easy to imagine Backer as a conservative social media star in 2021 — but instead, he’s now focused on a message far outside the Trumpist narrative: the need to solve climate change. In June, Backer, 23, confidently strode out on a stage in Miami’s Bayfront Park. Dressed in a crisp navy-and-pink patterned button-down, he welcomed attendees to what was billed as the first climate rally for concerned conservatives. This, he said, was the start of the “new climate movement,” one that “knows capitalism and freedom” instead of regulation. “Today, conservatives are reclaiming our seat at the environmental table once again,” Backer crowed.
As the founder and president of the American Conservation Coalition, which organizes young Republicans around free-market climate change solutions, Backer is part of an emerging effort on the right to win over environmentalists. The June rally featured Republican speakers including former U.S. representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (both from Florida), Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Florida and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. It was time, they said, for the right to leave behind climate denial and offer real fixes. “If we want to win elections in this country, we have to talk about this,” said Suarez.
The GOP’s recent history on the environment has gone from John McCain’s 2008 campaign featuring a modest cap-and-trade plan for addressing climate change, to anti-Obama rhetoric on green policy, to the outright denial of the Trump administration. Republicans who sought bipartisan action haven’t fared well: Of the 11 House members who signed a resolution expressing climate urgency in 2015, the only one in Congress today is Elise Stefanik of New York.
And yet there are still conservatives who want to address climate change. Recently, more than 50 House Republicans joined a climate change caucus, which Backer helped to promote, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy named 15 members to a new energy, climate and conservation task force. Even Trump allies like Rep. Matt Gaetz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have made overtures on climate change, with DeSantis dedicating funding to “resilience” for the state’s threatened coastline (although he has done little to cut emissions).
Backer wants Republicans to put together a platform including research — both public and private — into clean energy solutions like carbon capture technology and nuclear power. He wants to encourage farmers to create carbon markets and protect wilderness areas from new development, without closing off public lands to oil and gas drilling entirely. ACC also backs federal spending to adapt coastlines and rural areas to extreme weather. (The group won’t disclose the names of its funders, but Backer told me its money “comes from a diverse group of private individual and family foundation contributions.”)
At the Miami rally, Emily Nielsen, a 29-year-old Miami resident, said ACC’s message merges “the two things I care about.” She believes that fighting climate change with “individualism” rather than top-down regulation is key to saving the country. She’s turned off by elected officials who spout climate denial, quipping, “I just don’t know what older Republicans care about.”
Environmental adaptation and clean energy might sound like a dead-end prospect for someone who could have been a Fox News star, but Backer, who now lives in Washington state, told me he’s happy to have taken the “harder direction” to work on an issue he deeply cares about. He still attacks the left with a Fox News-like zeal, however: He peppers his rhetoric with gibes at “socialists,” and on his Twitter feed, he’s fond of saying things like “the current climate change movement (and its lack of sensible policies) does more harm than climate deniers do.”
The question is who is listening. Republicans in Congress are still opposed to sweeping climate action, while the left wants ambitious zero-carbon electricity standards and a leave-it-in-the-ground approach to oil and gas drilling. Many environmentalists view spending on innovation and mitigation as necessary, but only as a piece of a more wide-reaching plan — one ambitious enough to tackle the state of emergency facing the planet: The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in 2018 that policymakers had just 12 years to act to avert the worst consequences of global warming, while Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, wrote in January that “nothing short of a total transformation of our energy infrastructure” is necessary to fight climate change.
“I’m glad there are young Republicans speaking up on climate action, but we really need to go big now,” says Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “Talking a good game and acknowledging that climate change is real — in my view that’s not worth anything. We’re past that in 2021.”
For his part, Backer says the “doom and gloom” rhetoric isn’t productive. “We’ve got to get our head straight and realize that before we can solve climate change, we have to know how we solve climate change,” he says. “Right now, we are not prepared without more innovation.” Republicans, he contends, are the ones who can do that — and win.
But his rally showed that may be harder than Backer’s optimism lets on. Despite a projected attendance of more than 500, only about 150 were there, huddling in sparse patches of shade. Some of the loudest voices at the event were exactly the ones Backer wants to leave behind: A group of older men jeered the speakers, lustily waving a Trump 2020 flag and signs that read “There Is No Climate Crisis.”
Rafael Gomez, a conservative YouTube vlogger who managed to obtain a press pass, at one point sidled up to the rally’s VIP area to taunt the “Democratic plants” like Suarez and Gimenez. “You’re a RINO, you want to destroy America,” Gomez shouted. “You want to destroy Miami with your globalism climate bulls---.” Benji Backer’s “new climate movement” may still have some work to do.
Jason Plautz is a writer based in Denver.