The Right Response to the Environment?

REVIEW: ‘The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future’ by Benji Backer

Climate change activists in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)
June 30, 2024

There is perhaps no issue on Capitol Hill that brokers less agreement than policies to address climate change. On the left, doom-forecasters and activists claim the planet will be irreparably broken without major action, requiring the government to change everything from the cars we drive to the number of indigenous women employed to build the next generation of energy, to hear Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) tell it. Those wails are met with chuckles, at best, on the right, with former president Donald Trump calling climate change a "Chinese hoax" and many voices inside the Republican Party agreeing.

Amid the cacophony, a new set of ideas of how to find consensus that will address the challengers has emerged. Benji Backer, the executive director of American Conservation Coalition, is out with his first book, The Conservative Environmentalist, that advances a fundamentally conservative set of policies to deliver real change, based on his experience as an advocate and working with federal and state governments to implement solutions. What’s contained isn’t as glamorous as the much-ballyhooed Green New Deal, but it presents something that the $93 trillion package lacks: conceptually achievable policies that will help ameliorate the damage from a changing climate while protecting Americans, our interests, and our way of life.

As he rightly argues, the discussion about what to do about climate change needs to be a local conversation. The right policy solution for rising coastlines in New Jersey is different from one for the same problem in Florida or California. None of those plans are much good in Iowa or Arkansas, which each face their own unique set of challenges.

In this brief book—a little over 200 pages—Backer walks through a number of truly common sense approaches, from better forest management to hydro and geothermal power expansion to smarter agriculture, explaining the benefits of each, both to address climate change and improve the communities connected to them and the country more broadly.

This is a theme that runs throughout Backer’s book. Climate policy, to be good policy, must strengthen America, not in some grand moralistic sense but to the benefit of everyday Americans, workers, and families, who are too often left out of the policy calculus related to climate.

That grounding leads Backer to also invest considerable attention to policies that don’t work, and they are legion. Relying on green energies such as solar and wind as a silver bullet isn’t feasible, certainly not within the timeframes progressive policies give to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels. Science has yet to solve how to make sure these sources are available when needed—as Backer points out repeatedly, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Germany represents a case-in-point: Despite lofty environmental promises, the country’s reliance on alternative energy has led to power shortages or forcing Germany to import dirty coal instead.

Electric vehicles present a similar set of problems. While promises abound for the technology’s prospects, the present state is too expensive for most American consumers. And the energy powering them is still drawn from a grid powered by dirty coal and fossil fuels.

Much of his focus, for both good and bad policies, surrounds the incentives for communities and business. Much like he does with his broader framing, Backer’s attention to detail when discussing an issue saturated with exaggerated moral pronunciations helps clarify his argument. His focus is on the tangible: why people do what they do, and how they can be nudged—with carrots or sticks—to do better.

One example (though limited in scope) is recycling. He walks through the policies of his college town, Seattle, which built on local efforts to foster real change, while recognizing that such a program wouldn’t be as effective everywhere.

Backer also recognizes that real action also necessitates international change. Energy and foreign policy are inextricably linked. America can benefit not just from cleaner domestic energy, like liquefied natural gas instead of coal and oil, but it can do so while investing in American production rather than relying on Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other countries who use fuel exports as a weapon.

That international focus is important because, as Backer notes, even if the United States were to somehow get to zero emissions, it wouldn’t achieve the reductions necessary to prevent perpetual warming:

Even if the United States went to a 100 percent decrease, with zero net emissions, the world’s emissions would only go down by 14 percent, a mere drop in the global warming bucket. And even if our progress continued in leaps and bounds, the rest of the world’s emissions most likely would still continue to climb without our help.

The solutions he offers to these challenges are limited, consisting mostly of "growing the green economy" and sharing some of this insight with the world. But his example of better gas mileage for the Toyota Sequoia his father used to drive doesn’t do much to illuminate how China might be encouraged to stop using so much dirty coal, or India to stop consuming so much meat.

There are other points where Backer’s arguments could be strengthened, both about the policy changes he recommends and the intellectual framework within which the debates are had.

His case supporting anthropogenic climate change consists of about two pages in his opening chapter, which he then references throughout the piece. That’s certainly enough for anyone who already agrees with the scientific consensus. But given nearly 30 percent of Americans don’t—and considering the beating the idea of a "scientific consensus" has taken lately—that case could have been made more thoroughly. That seems particularly important for a book focused on conservatives, who are more likely to be among the doubters.

Some of his arguments throughout the book fall into a similar category of presumption. Backer hails the successes of previous agreements such as the Montreal Protocol of 1987 that targeted chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). While the measure was certainly a global victory, it isn’t particularly analogous to our present concerns around climate change. As National Review pointed out in 2009:

If you add up all the CFCs that have ever been produced in the entire world, the total is about 25 million metric tons. That’s one-thousandth of today’s annual global production of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. Also, CFC use was concentrated in a few specific industries, whereas power and transportation, the main sources of carbon emissions, are intimately involved in just about every corner of the economy. At the same time, CFCs are much more dangerous: Unlike carbon dioxide, they are synthetic chemicals with no natural mechanisms to remove them from the air; they can linger in the upper atmosphere, causing mischief, for 50 years or more. Together, these factors made their near-complete eradication much easier and cheaper, as well as much more imperative, than even modest reductions in greenhouse gases will be.

And Backer's unbridled faith in free markets, while befitting of a conservative environmentalist, sometimes reads as naïve. He holds up trophy hunting in South Africa and nearby countries, which he describes as an "excellent way to preserve species" and that revenue "goes toward impoverished communities." While there are certainly encouraging examples, corruption and government malfeasance are also present, as the Atlantic recently covered in a feature on the darker side of the practice.

Nevertheless, Backer’s book is a valuable entrant into a conversation that conservatives have for too long eschewed, ceding the discussion to the outrage and vitriol from voices on the left. To date, as unmoored as those voices may be, they’ve been effective at convincing millions of young people that the end is nigh. That once included Backer, as he notes. Hopefully his book can show others in a similar position the light.

The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future
by Benji Backer
Sentinel, 256 pp., $30

Drew Holden is the managing editor at American Compass and the author of the "Holden Court" newsletter on Substack.