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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.