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At a climate conference for conservatives, urgency for action meets caution on messaging

“At the time, it was both safe and popular for Republicans to deny climate change,” one speaker said of previous generations of politicians. “But times are changing.”
A power plant in Portage Des Sioux, Mo.
A power plant in Portage Des Sioux, Mo.Joe Sohm / Visions of America / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The first slide in Luke Bolar’s presentation at the third annual Conservative Climate Leadership Conference immediately elicited some laughter from the crowd.

On screen was an infamous photo from 2015 — former Oklahoma senator and staunch climate denier Jim Inhofe holding a snowball on the Senate floor to prove global warming was a hoax. 

“At the time, it was both safe and popular for Republicans to deny climate change,” said Bolar, the chief external affairs officer at ClearPath, an environmental advocacy group dedicated to growing conservative clean energy. “But times are changing.”

Bolar, a former aide to several Republicans on Capitol Hill, was one of about 100 people who gathered at the Holiday Inn in downtown Washington on Tuesday for one of the largest yearly meetings of conservatives concerned about climate change.

Each attendee had passed a screening about their political opinions on social and economic issues to prove their right-leaning status and gain entry to the event, which boasted the tagline: “Yes, there’s a place for conservative climate action. And this is it.” 

The agenda promised discussions for conservatives looking to tackle climate change using strategies centered on limited government interference and a more inclusive, market-based approach to fossil fuels. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan environmental advocacy group, hosted the conference, before sending attendees to Capitol Hill to lobby Republican members of Congress to support climate action. 

Craig Preston of California speaks at the opening of the Conservative Climate Leadership Conference.
Craig Preston of California speaks at the opening of the 2023 Conservative Climate Leadership Conference.CCL

The day started at 10 a.m. Over paper cups of coffee and pale yellow banquet tables, blazer-clad attendees chatted about the cherry blossoms blooming nearby and the upcoming lobby day.

The attendees came from around the country. Phil Engen, a software development manager from Iowa, explained the strategy for getting fellow conservatives to talk about climate.

“You have to be very careful with your wording,” Engen said. “It’s best to find an issue that you both agree on, and approach climate change through that lens.”

Sessions covered issues like the impact of climate change on hunting and fishing, growing the nuclear energy industry and working with the media as climate-driven conservatives.

Two major talking points at the conference focused on permitting reform and carbon pricing in the form of carbon dividends, in which companies pay a fee for every metric ton of carbon they emit and the funds collected are paid out to Americans as monthly dividends. 

In the U.S., the permitting process for new energy projects such as transmission lines to transport renewable energy can be extremely long. Energy experts say many of the goals of the Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed last year, cannot be met without overhauling the permitting process.

In the last decade, Democrats have incorporated climate change into their political platform far more than Republicans have. But more recently, Republicans, particularly young ones, are increasingly speaking up about climate. In 2022, a Pew Research Center poll found that 47% of Republicans aged 18-29 believe the federal government is doing too little to address climate change. 

At the state level, some Republican-led states are leading the clean energy transition. In 2022, Texas and Iowa produced more wind power than the rest of the U.S., and Florida and North Carolina produced the most solar power.

The climate deniers, Bolar reassured the audience, are a small but loud percentage of conservatives. “It’s time to talk about solutions,” he said.

It’s essential to inform GOP politicians that talking about climate will score points with both swing voters and their Republican constituents, many of whom have established that they care about climate change, Bolar told attendees. 

Still, the party has many vocal climate change skeptics, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who once said that global warming is good for the planet, along with former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly called climate change a hoax.

The topic is still difficult to broach in many conservative circles, several attendees at this week’s conference said.

For Elizabeth Fenner, a librarian living in Wichita, Kansas, talking to her Catholic community about climate change can be downright impossible. Still, Fenner argues that taking climate action is a religious duty. “I believe we are commanded by God to protect the Earth,” she said.

Dalton Jackson, a 20-year-old conservative student from Indiana who grew up on a farm, said it’s not uncommon for people in rural Indiana to deny climate change.

Jackson said that many farmers rely on diesel-powered tractors and trucks to make a living — and the concept of electrification for farming equipment brings up concerns about price, and even loss of identity.

“Climate change should be a bipartisan issue,” Jackson said. “It affects all of us. All we can do is hope that Republicans around the nation will hear us out. It’s easy to shame them, but it’s not productive. Rural people are not our enemies. We’re all Americans at the end of the day.”

Conservative climate advocates believe bipartisan action is essential to address climate change in America. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, has openly spoken about climate change and encouraged other Republicans to do the same. Curtis, who was a featured speaker at the conference, founded the Conservative Climate Caucus in 2021, and has been lauded for his efforts to bring climate change to the Republican platform.

“Republicans care deeply about leaving the Earth even better than we found it,” Curtis said in an interview. “And in the past, we haven’t always done a good job of articulating that. I think that’s been a mistake, and I want to change that.”

Still, Curtis voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, which included billions of dollars for clean energy production, energy efficiency and forest protection. He said that he felt that Republicans were not consulted on the bill. 

Curtis said that climate change needs to be addressed in a more practical, conservative manner. Many Republicans also feel that fossil fuels are an important part of the energy transition — that you can’t get to 100% clean energy without the help of fossil fuels, for a limited time, he said. 

Most importantly, it is essential to talk about climate change outside of political terms, Curtis said. “I try to appeal to their innate desire to pass on an earth for our posterity that’s better than what we found. I believe that that’s implanted in the hearts of all of us.”