The young conservatives who believe Greta Thunberg and want to bring Republicans with them

CNN’s Bill Weir speaks with young Republicans at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, who believe they have the ideas to persuade their party to drive climate change solutions.

Something was different at CPAC 2020.

Sure, Fox News and the NRA were in their regular spots between booths full of “deplorable” hammocks, Donald Trump nutcrackers and a life-size statue of the President, made of nails and posed as Superman.

But in the middle of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the booth cocking the most eyebrows was focused on climate change — not as something to deny or mock — but as a crisis to fight. With taxes!

Between cardboard cutouts of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, young men in ties and ball caps tried to convince the curious (and the occasional heckler) to ignore everything they’ve been told about global warming at CPACs past.

Looming across the aisle was The Heartland Institute, the powerful think tank long devoted to denying global warming science, and two booths down stood “Climate Hustle 2” (starring television Hercules Kevin Sorbo) but the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends worked a crowd two-people-deep with the confidence of CPAC veterans.

“This is really a generational issue,” Harvard senior and YCCD founder Kiera O’Brien told me. “We believe that people my age and a little bit older are really waking up to the problem that is climate change on both sides of the aisle.”

A few hours later at a bar around the corner, University of Washington senior Benji Backer addressed his rival group of Republican climate hawks, the American Conservation Coalition. “It is really awesome to see such an amazing crowd of conservatives who care about the environment here,” he beamed to the packed happy hour crowd.

O’Brien and Backer embody the latest polling from organizations like the Pew Research Center that found that while less than a third of Republican Boomers think the government isn’t doing enough on climate change, over half of young Republicans do. And 78% of Republicans from the millennial generation and younger say the US should prioritize renewable energy over fossil fuel.

But as more young conservatives agree with Greta Thunberg that humanity’s “house is on fire,” it is opening up new debates with — and among — those on the right over the best way to put it out.

“I don’t believe that we need to end fossil fuels overnight,” Backer told me on a stroll through Olympic National Park. “I think that there are ways to transition over multiple, multiple decades to cleaner technologies.”

As a kid in Wisconsin, he began knocking on doors for John McCain and the Tea Party movement at age 10. When he realized that the party of Teddy Roosevelt was denying or ignoring man-made damage to his beloved outdoors, he formed the ACC, now on 190 campuses, he says.

The group opposes a carbon tax and the government regulation that’s being suggested for a Green New Deal by millennials on the left like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Instead, Backer says free market forces could decarbonize the global economy, with incentives for carbon capture, regenerative agriculture, clean technology and tree planting. “Every one of my generation wants to buy a Tesla. Everyone in my generation wants to have solar panels on their roofs. That demand is there. That’s a culture change that no government policy could ever enact, that is shifting the way that we look at climate change and our economy,” Backer says. “But it’s not going to take just one policy.”

O’Brien and her Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends disagree. She formed her group to promote the so-called Baker-Shultz plan of the Climate Leadership Council.

“I would say this IS the market-based solution,” she said. “This is the solution that is backed by the largest statement of economists in the history of the profession of economics!”

A child of Yosemite Park Rangers, she was born in Alaska and fell in love with nature in a state that taxes the oil flowing through their famous pipeline and sends an annual dividend check to every year-round resident. “It’s currently paying for my college education,” she said. “It really makes a difference for Alaskan families.”

The nationwide action she supports was published in 2017 by Reagan-era cabinet members James Baker and George Shultz and six other authors, and proposes a carbon tax of $40 per ton that would gradually go up in order to drive down fossil fuel demand and spur clean energy innovation. To help cover the higher costs of fuel, the tax would pay the average American family around $2,000 a year in dividend and slap a “border adjustment” on the cost of imported fossil fuel to urge other nations to fall in line.

But central to the plan is a provision that makes most environmentalists recoil: complete deregulation of carbon. So no restrictions on mining coal, fracking or drilling for oil in the United States. It is one big reason Baker-Shultz has the support of oil giants like ExxonMobil and BP. Corporations like Microsoft and Ford and an assortment of strange political bedfellows, including the late Stephen Hawking, Ben Bernanke, hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio and Christiana Figueres, lead negotiator for the Paris Climate Accord, are all listed as founding supporters.

O’Brien boasts that such a pedigree has lured the support of around half of the nation’s College Republican state chairs and vice chairs. “Those are your next generation leaders of the Republican Party. And when you come with that pitch, party leaders tend to listen.”

But the idea is a heavy political lift regardless of party. Neither leading Democratic candidate for President, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, has a carbon tax in their climate plans and President Donald Trump continues to downplay urgent warnings of American scientists. His administration is stacked with former fossil fuel lobbyists fighting for the most dramatic rollback of environmental and climate protection laws in history. But while both O’Brien and Backer are visibly conflicted by the idea of voting for Trump in 2020, both are driven by the hope he could be swayed.

“I would love for President Trump to sign a plan just like this,” O’Brien said. “I mean, attitudes can change in the future. We’re betting on it with the Republican Party as a whole. I see no reason why President Trump couldn’t change his mind as well.”

“He started to say that climate change is real, which is a huge difference from where he’s been before,” Backer said after pointing out that Trump’s approval rating on the environment is the lowest of any issue. “People on both sides say I’m a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But if he changed his tune and said tomorrow, ‘I want a big climate change policy,’ I will work with anybody, whether that’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or President Trump.”

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