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Benji Backer on ‘Giving Conservatives a Voice’ in Environmental Activism

Written by:

Josh Levs

The Washington Post called him “the young conservative trying to make
Republicans care about climate change.” The Today show profiled him as “the 21-year-old
conservative spreading a message.” 

Now, attendees to the Energy 2.0 Forum in Houston on March 10 will
hear from Benji Backer, who is now 22, finishing his undergraduate degree in
business at the University of Washington, and the president and founder of the
American Conservation Coalition. 

Most environmental groups say they're not situated on the
political spectrum. But, Benji says, most “support left-of-center politics. If
someone wants a market-based approach, then the approach of a traditional
environmental organization won’t jibe with them.”

“We’re giving conservatives a voice” in the environmental movement
and working to find common ground with groups that have other political
perspectives, he says. Before he and a group of fellow millennials founded the coalition in 2017, there were some
other groups of conservative environmentalists, “but they were think tanks” or
grassroots organizations focused on specific issues such as a carbon tax, Benji
says. “We wanted to be much more broad.”

The group focused much of its efforts on building a groundswell of
support for environmental action among college students who identify as
conservative. “Pretty much overnight, we got representatives on 200 different
campuses,” Benji says. The group has continued to grow. In late 2019, Benji testified before a House
subcommittee.

In advance of his remarks at the forum, Pink Petro spoke with
Benji about his unusual story, and what inspired him.

Did your family identify as politically conservative when you were
growing up?

Our family is incredibly diverse in terms of politics. For one of
my sisters, politics isn’t her passion. My other sister is definitely liberal.
We definitely have an interesting dynamic there. It taught me at a young age to
see the different sides to an issue and respect people who had different
opinions because it happened in my family.

My parents are moderately conservative, but I didn’t know that.
They’re small business owners and believed that an individual can do a better
job of creating their own future than the government can, and that the
government often stands in the way of people achieving their highest hopes and
dreams. But I had no idea what my parents believed -- they never told me who
they were voting for. We were not a political household.

So political interests for me were unexpected. When I started
volunteering for political campaigns at age 10, my parents had always
encouraged us to do things outside of the box so they were excited that I
wanted to do that. 

What was the campaign you got involved in?

I got active in the McCain campaign. He inspired me to really take
action. He was a war hero and was respectful on stage and was also conservative
and talked about limited government, fiscal responsibility and not wasting
taxpayers dollars. And I loved Arizona, where we had our family reunion every
year.

The campaign that inspired me to take my activism to the next
level was a guy named Reid Ribble running for Congress in Wisconsin. He ended
up winning, unseating an incumbent. It was a tight race. But he gave me a lot
of time and mentorship.

When did you get excited about environmental issues?

In 2014, during the next set of midterms, I realized the
conservative movement that I was a part of didn’t talk about environmental
issues. I had always been an environmentalist. We went to national parks in
Wisconsin, which were really peaceful. I loved the outdoors. 

Throughout high school, I would tell people I was liberal on the
environment. Then I asked myself why it was liberal to care about the
environment.

When Trump won in 2016, I was a freshman. I thought, ‘There needs
to be an organization that fights for conservative values and brings
environmental groups in.’”

What’s your big next goal for the American Conservation Coalition?

To create a cross-partisan movement on environmental issues that rivals that of the Sierra Club. That allows people to know there are free market, limited government ways to solve environmental challenges.  Once we do, that you're going to see an entire new section of the political spectrum taking action on these issues.

Hear more from Benji Backer and the AAC at Energy 2.0 in Houston on March 10.

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