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Against the Odds, Young Conservatives Buck the GOP on Energy and Climate Change

A group of young Republicans is out to persuade their party to pursue a path toward a future free of fossil fuels.

Sep 5, 2012
YCER co-founder Michele Combs.

A group of young Republicans has set out to achieve what some might say is an impossible goal: Over the next two years they'll try to persuade their party to craft and support legislation that would reform the nation’s energy system and set a path toward a future free of fossil fuels.

"We want to show conservatives that this truly is an issue that affects us, affects our families and our businesses," said Michele Combs, a 45-year-old legislative consultant who founded the group. (Paragraph includes correction, 09/05/2012).

The organization—Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, or YCER—joins a small but growing number of like-minded groups and individuals who hope to revive a voice that has been lost in the Republican Party, one that's focused on curbing, not expanding, fossil fuel production. (Paragraph includes correction, 09/05/2012).

At last week's GOP convention in Florida, the Evangelical Environment Network teamed with the Florida Wildlife Federation to buy billboard ads touting prominent Republicans' concerns about climate change, including Ohio Governor John Kasich. In July, a group called the Energy and Enterprise Initiative was formed to bring Republicans and libertarians together to find free-market solutions to the climate change problem. Former Rep. Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, is heading the initiative out of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

"A lot of conservatives don't believe that there are climactic costs" to burning fossil fuels, said Alex Bozmoski, the initiative's director of strategy and operations. "It's only prudent to acknowledge that the continued, unabated emission of greenhouse gases poses a risk for current and especially future generations."

YCER's leaders have deep roots in the Republican Party. Combs, the group's president, was a 1989 national "Young Republican of the Year," and Brian Smith, a 32-year-old Air Force Veteran and chair of the Midwest chapter, is a former co-chair of the Young Republicans National Federation, a training ground for party leaders since 1931. Both support Mitt Romney's presidential bid, even though his energy platform favors more fossil fuels and less environmental regulation. (Paragraph includes correction, 09/05/2012).

Combs said YCER won't take individual Republican politicians to task for their climate change skepticism or push for specific policy solutions—at least not immediately. They also won't make climate change science a key part of their agenda.

"Our position on climate change is that it really shouldn't be a litmus test for Republicans," said Smith on a call with reporters last month. "We want it to be an issue that Republicans can talk about." (Paragraph includes correction, 09/05/2012).

The group also won't go against the grain of the Republican leadership when it comes to scaling up domestic oil and natural gas drilling. Romney made both a key part of his recently unveiled plan for U.S. energy independence by 2020.

Combs called the ramp-up strategy "a good first step" on the path toward energy reform. But Juan Lopez-Campillo, an Orlando-based attorney and chair of the group's Florida chapter, said YCER hopes to move Republicans beyond the "drill here, drill now" mentality that now pervades the party. He said he supports shifting government subsidies from oil companies to the burgeoning clean-energy sector, a position usually favored by Democrats. "I think there should be a leveling of the playing field," he said.

One of YCER's first steps will be to address what Combs calls the "lack of education" among conservative Americans who may have tuned out the energy debate because they see it as a strictly liberal agenda.

"Some of them don't even realize what energy reform entails, and they don't realize how much it really controls their lives," she said.

YCER plans to host local receptions and rallies where energy experts and Republicans interested in energy reform can meet with the public to discuss topics that aren't often talked about in conservative circles.

They'll stress why it is important to gradually phase out fossil fuels in favor of cleaner alternatives like wind and solar energy, emphasize the national security benefits of scaling back oil imports and underscore the reality that America’s own oil and natural gas resources will eventually run out. They will also highlight the health benefits of keeping toxic pollutants out of the air and waterways, and try to drive home the message that spurring growth in the renewables sector can create jobs and economic gains.

"Irrespective of whether you support the science behind climate change or whether you don't, all of us can agree that renewable, clean energy resources are the way to go to stabilize our [energy] future," Lopez-Campillo said.

Shifting the Focus from Climate Change

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, said that treading lightly on the topic of climate change could prove a smart strategy for groups like YCER. Hayhoe, an  evangelical Christian who describes herself as a conservative, gained national attention last year when then-GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich rejected a chapter she had written on man-made global warming from his book on environmental issues, which is set to come out after the November elections.

Because climate change "has been cast as an ideological issue," Hayhoe said young conservatives might break through to their peers more easily by appealing to common values, like the desire for cleaner air and water, healthier families, and strong local economies.

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