US conservatives stake claim to climate activism with Miami rally

Participants at an American Conservation Coalition conservative climate rally in Miami on Saturday.
Participants at an American Conservation Coalition conservative climate rally in Miami on Saturday.PHOTO: REUTERS

MIAMI (REUTERS) - For Mr Benji Backer, being conservative means believing in limited government, market-based solutions - and the scientists who say carbon emissions must be cut to avoid the worst of climate change.

Mr Backer's non-profit, the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), held what it billed as the country's first conservative climate rally in Miami, part of an effort by the 23-year-old activist to convince fellow right-leaning Americans they do not have to be liberals to support action on the issue.

It included a handful of Republican politicians from south Florida, which faces climate threats including tidal floods from rising seas, stronger hurricanes and health risks from higher temperatures and humidity.

"The environment does not have a preferred political party," Mr Backer said from a podium, overlooking a bay near where the United States Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a US$6 billion (S$8 billion) sea wall.

"Today, conservatives are reclaiming our seat at the environmental table."

An avid skier and hiker, Mr Backer began organising ACC while a college freshman and becoming dismayed with then President Donald Trump, who said climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese. The group said it hopes its membership, currently in the thousands, will expand to 10,000 by the end of this year.

Mr Backer's mission reflects a nuance in US climate politics that is often lost in the partisan debate: While the Republican Party is seen as opposed to climate action, many of its members believe in global warming but disagree with liberals over how to fix it.

That poses no small problem, however.

Environmentalists accuse Mr Backer's group of obstructing the aggressive climate action they say is needed to save the planet by proposing half-measure, market-based solutions instead.

While ACC supports parts of Democratic President Joe Biden's climate plan, such as those that focus on innovation, from nuclear energy advances to carbon capture and storage, it also faults his proposals for being bloated and for failing "to streamline burdensome regulations".

Mr Biden's administration hopes to decarbonise the US economy by 2050 and the power sector by 2035, mainly by ramping up clean energy use and electrifying vehicles and buildings.

The ACC platform only calls for moving "towards" global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, not hitting the target or surpassing it. Rather than the mandates included in Mr Biden's plan, it favours "market solutions" to cutting greenhouse gases, such as constructing more buildings out of wood that stores carbon, creating new global forests in a "trillion trees" programme and increasing use of emissions-free hydropower.

"I don't like mandates because sometimes they have a lot of unintended consequences of propping up some people at the expense of others," said Ms Emily Nielsen, a 29-year-old software engineer attending the rally, which attracted about 200 people.

"Conservatives are more concerned about encouraging innovation or voluntary actions to address climate change," she said.

Taking action now

But critics say the measures supported by conservative groups like ACC could delay progress on the urgent steps needed to curb climate change.

"We have the technology to fight climate change today. We need to start taking action now," said Ms Julie McNamara, an analyst in the climate and energy programme at the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists.

Ms Carla Staver, an ecologist and the associate director of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, added that planting new forests can be one component of a comprehensive approach on climate change, but that estimates of their climate impact put forward by some conservatives can be "wildly optimistic".

Another big sticking point for climate activists: ACC does not support imposing a carbon fee, a market mechanism that would encourage investors to move to cleaner energy sources.


Activist Benji Backer, 23, speaking to participants at the rally, which attracted about 200 people, on Saturday. PHOTO: REUTERS

"An obsessive focus on innovation and policies which impose no costs on anyone are by definition policies that are not up to the task," said Mr Jerry Taylor, the president of the Niskanen Centre, a moderate think-tank.

Mr Backer hopes soon there will be hundreds of climate-minded Republicans in Congress, up from dozens now, pointing to recent polls that show that younger members of the party are more open to curbing climate change than older ones.

US Representative Carlos Gimenez of Florida, elected in 2020, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez were among the Republicans who attended the rally.

For now, staunch Republican support for the drilling and mining industries still looms over conservative efforts on climate. A few older attendees at the rally held signs saying: "There is no climate crisis!"

Mr Taylor said small steps may be as far as the party can go at the moment given that many Republican lawmakers represent states with major fossil fuel industries.

"It could be that this kind of small ball incrementalism is all that really is possible," he said.