- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2023

Young Republicans concerned about combating climate change are looking to make a splash at next week’s GOP presidential debate by bending the ears of White House hopefuls.

The American Conservation Coalition will be the headline sponsor of the official party following Wednesday’s debate in Milwaukee, marking the first time an environmental group with a conservative tilt will insert itself into a Republican presidential race in such a fashion.

The organization says the party is at risk of turning away younger voters who trend increasingly in favor of addressing the climate — unless elder Republicans can get their messaging right.

“Republicans need to engage on energy and climate or they’re going to lose young voters,” said Karly Matthews, spokeswoman for the American Conservation Coalition Action. “I think party leaders understand the importance of young people and not alienating an entire generation of voters to appeal to a fringe part of the party that doesn’t want to acknowledge climate change.”

By the 2028 election, millennials and Gen Z — generations born anywhere from 1981 to 2012 — are set to comprise most eligible U.S. voters.

“This is no longer a niche young people group. This is the future, but also the present, of the conservative movement,” Ms. Matthews said. “Climate action is not at odds with conservative principles.”

ACC expects all participating debate candidates to join the afterparty. Those who have qualified to be on stage include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador and ex-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Former President Donald Trump qualifies but has signaled he may not participate since he has a commanding lead in the polls of nearly 40 points. It’s unclear whether Mr. Christie will be allowed to participate over his refusal to sign a GOP loyalty pledge to support whoever becomes the eventual nominee because of his fierce opposition to Mr. Trump.

“When we’re talking about wildfires, it’s OK to acknowledge climate change plays a role,” Ms. Matthews said. “Of course, we also need to actively manage our forests, but just acknowledging that the climate is [changing] and affecting our communities will be really, really important for these candidates.”

ACC, a 20,000-member nationwide organization, said it will bring Republican VIP guests, including former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and former Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, to attend and talk with candidates.

Ms. Matthews name-checked Mr. DeSantis, Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott as those with better environmental records and support for taking action.

“I really feel that this field of candidates is equipped to talk on these issues, it’s just a matter of whether or not they take the initiative to do so,” she said.

Polling in recent years has increasingly shown tackling climate change and transitioning away from oil to renewables are what younger voters across the political spectrum support.

A Pew Research Center survey published in June showed two-thirds of Republicans under age 30 (67%) said the development of clean energy sources like wind and solar should be prioritized over more oil, coal and natural gas. Conversely, 75% of Republicans 65 and older said oil should be prioritized.

The same poll also found that while the general public is reluctant to entirely phase out fossil fuels — just 31% supported this — younger voters likelier would back such a move. For those ages 18-29, 58% who are Democrat or lean left and 29% of Republicans or those who lean right said they support phasing out oil completely compared with 42% of Democrats 65 and older and less than 10% of Republicans 50 and over.

ACC does not support entirely ditching coal, oil and natural gas. The group advocates for an all-of-the-above energy approach but feels Republicans too often overlook clean energy or carbon-reducing measures.

President Biden’s marquee tax-and-climate spending law known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which just marked its one-year anniversary this week, included $370 billion in clean energy tax credits over the next decade. Those sorts of green incentives are a good foundation, Ms. Matthews said, but emphasized permitting energy projects of all forms should be Congress’ next priority.

“We did not outright support the IRA, but we see value in some of the [clean energy] provisions that have historically been bipartisan,” Ms. Matthews said.

• Ramsey Touchberry can be reached at rtouchberry@washingtontimes.com.

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