Author on environment and conservatism charts new course on environmental policy

Chamber Business News sat down recently with Benji Backer, the founder of the American Conservation Coalition and the author of The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future, which was released Apr. 16. Part 1 of the interview is here. Part 2 follows.

Chamber Business News: You’re the author of a new book, The Conservative Environmentalist: Common Sense Solutions for a Sustainable Future. What’s your book about? 

Benji Backer: I’ve spent the last seven years traveling to hundreds of communities, rural and urban, to find solutions to environmental challenges and see the realities and complexities firsthand. This book is a culmination of all those experiences and partnerships with amazing organizations and people to basically build out this alternative path on environmental action. 

The book details why this issue became so divided, and how that’s unnecessary, but most importantly it talks about what sort of solutions people could agree on and what short term wins we can ally on to protect our environment. 

Those things include things that aren’t that sexy or exciting compared to what has been proposed in headlines like “drill, baby drill,” or banning fossil fuels. But there are a ton of common-sense solutions that are outlined in the book that we could pursue right now, while also leaning on entrepreneurship, innovation, the growth of technology, and ingenuity in this country and across the world to solve the remainder of the challenge. 

It basically charts that alternative approach. And it calls on our leaders to do that, too. 

CBN: Are there some small wins to be had? 

Bracker: We cannot solve environmental challenges without incrementalism. This is a walk, then jog, then run, approach. Overhauling people’s lives will never be a sustainable way forward because people will never adopt that. People will always push back.  

We need to create solutions that work for people and the planet. We need to be lowering costs and increasing efficiency. We need to make people’s lives better with the solutions, otherwise it will never be adopted here or anywhere else around the world.  

So, that means incrementalism and getting some wins under our belt, getting the momentum in the right direction. And thankfully, we already have. The United States is leading the world in reducing carbon emissions. We have not done enough, but we are moving in the right direction,

CBN: Chapter 2 is titled, “Streamlining the Complicated Role of Government in the New Green Economy.” Tell us about your argument there. 

Backer: Contrary to popular belief, the government has actually stood in the way of clean energy development and pro-environmental projects. It takes 10 years for an offshore wind developer or a geothermal company to get approved. You have forest owners who cannot manage their forests because of government regulation that results in massive wildfires. 

I’m not saying that we should just take a hands-off, laissez faire approach to solve environmental challenges. But the government can also overstep its bounds and stand in the way of progress. And that’s what’s happening right now in a lot of ways. 

Even though it might not sound pro-environment to loosen regulations and allow people to manage forests and get energy projects deployed faster when they don’t have to go through as lengthy of an approval process, it actually will end up helping us. And you can see that as proof from other countries that are doing this way better than we are. You look at Europe and their ability to manage forests and deploy nuclear and other clean energy sources fast. 

Benji Backer, Founder and Executive Chairman, American Conservation Coalition

CBN: To what extent should a regulation’s effect on business be considered before being adopted? 

Backer: First, we have to turn this issue on its head; we should be relying on the private sector as the first place that we go for solutions, then we should be looking at the local government, then the state government, and then the federal government.  

Let’s say the government is an important part of an environmental solution in the energy space. It should be equipping and incentivizing the right behavior, not prohibiting, and regulating and mandating. 

When you put chokeholds on the economy, and you don’t push people in the right direction, you get bad results. 

I see the role of the government as supporting the right moves to create the marketplace for sustainable business, not to prevent against unsustainable business. We should be equipping companies to do the right thing rather than prohibiting them from doing the wrong thing.

CBN: On the topic of energy, coal is being phased out. Can natural gas and nuclear energy be part of a clean energy future? 

Backer: We can’t have a clean energy future without nuclear and natural gas. We need base load, 24/7 power, and we have to have reliable energy that doesn’t just work when the sun shines and the wind blows.  

There are a lot of parts of this country that aren’t sunny, and there are a lot of parts of this country that aren’t windy, and every part of this country that has a nighttime and doesn’t have wind or sun, so we need to be realistic about what energy sources we’re providing.  

We also have an obligation to middle and lower-class people to provide them with energy that is cost effective. Nuclear and natural gas do that in a way that also is pro-environment. 

If you replace coal with natural gas, you reduce emissions significantly worldwide. Again, that’s why the United States has reduced emissions.

People will use the energy sources that are the lowest cost option, and right now natural gas is a clean way to do that, a reliable way to do that. 

CBN: What are the opponents of nuclear and natural gas missing? 

Backer: Unfortunately, they’re missing reality. I think there’s a lot of ignorance and a lot of misinformation out there and oversimplification. 

To be anti-natural gas or nuclear is ignorant at best, and destructive — intentionally destructive at worst. 

I think it boils down for most well-intentioned people to ignorance, but also this kind of idea of NIMBYism. Not-in-my-backyardism. People don’t want even wind turbines or solar panels, but especially natural gas plants, or mining for uranium, or nuclear plants themselves in their backyards.  

But again, that demand is going to be met somewhere. So, if it’s not near you, it’s near someone else. And if it’s not near someone else, then it’s probably overseas where countries like China don’t care about their impact on the environment.  

CBN: There is a vocal counter argument to what you’re saying, which is that renewables are ready today to replace these sources. You seem skeptical of that. 

Backer: I wish renewables were ready today. I’m skeptical that they will ever be at the scale that people want them to be, but they’re not ready. They are not ready for mass adoption and to replace our energy portfolio. And people who are saying that renewables are ready to replace all other energy sources are flat out wrong and they’re either lying or they don’t know the realities.

Again, I wish that wasn’t the case. I don’t want it to come across to people that I am anti-renewables. There’s a reality here that is being missed by so many, and we, I think, forget as a country, how reliant we are on energy to survive. Intermittent, sparsely resourced energy sources are not the way forward. It would turn America backwards and harm our most vulnerable people. 

I hate when people use that as an argument to say that we don’t need renewables, because that’s not true, either. They have an important place at the table. But I also hate it when people say that that’s all we need, because that’s not true, and that’s even more damaging to society than saying that we don’t need them at all. 

CBN: Can we be good stewards of the land and still engage in industries like mining, drilling, and hydraulic fracturing? 

Backer: If humans didn’t exist on the earth with the population we have, then we wouldn’t have to have these tough conversations about tradeoffs.  

But I believe in humanity, and I believe in our ability to make this world a better place, and I believe our population can do a lot of good. And so, if we have the population we do, we will have demand for resources that constantly means we’re taking from the environment.  

We have to mine, no matter if that’s for uranium, for nuclear fuel, or lithium for EV batteries, or cobalt for solar panels, wind turbines, every single energy source product. 

Not all mining and drilling and taking from the environment is the same. We should have high standards. We should prioritize protecting the places that we’re not taking from. And we should be creating technologies to figure out how to take the least from the environment possible. 

CBN: When we think about policy in the environmental policy space, we often are dealing with the executive branch rulemaking regulations. Do you have an opinion on whether you’d like to see these issues be discussed in Congress or in the White House? 

Backer: I think the role of Congress is to find a bipartisan common ground on these issues. But the problem with relying on the federal government is that you allow it to be a political football. If it’s partisan, it’s inherently at risk of being undone. And I think Congress and the White House have an obligation. I don’t think President Biden has done a good job of this at all. And I don’t think President Trump did a good job of this at all, of working with the other side, to come up with solutions. 

CBN: When will we know whether your organization has achieved its goals? 

Backer: The moment that our organization, this book, this entire movement, has achieved its goals is the day that we return to cross partisan collaboration on the environment again.  

I believe nature is nonpartisan, and until our elected leaders understand that too, our movement has not worked. But once they do, we’ve done our job, and it’s time to move forward on the solutions. But until Americans demand that they work together on this, they won’t. 

That’s why I’m calling on all people, regardless of political ideology, to stand together and fight for these principles because we need it. We are in desperate need of a new environmental movement, and that new environmental movement will be successful when we’re seeing it in policy and when the environment is no longer part of our culture wars.

Guest Contributor

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