“The Conservative Environmentalist” Charts a New Path Forward Seeking Bipartisan Climate Solutions


By: Stacie Sullivan

In “The Conservative Environmentalist,” Benji Backer, long-time friend of POW and founder of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), presents a compelling narrative that challenges traditional political divides by advocating for a more inclusive approach to finding climate solutions. Growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, a small city surrounded by natural beauty, Benji’s passion for the outdoors transcends political boundaries. His new book not only outlines the urgent need for bipartisan cooperation on climate change but also provides recommendations for how conservatives and progressives can find common ground on this critical issue.

We caught up with Benji to learn more about his background, why a book like “The Conservative Environmentalist” is needed, and what we can all do to find common ground and work together on common sense climate solutions.

POW: To kick things off, can you give a brief background on yourself?

Benji Backer: I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, in a family of entrepreneurs with moderate conservative views. Politics wasn’t a big topic at home, but I became interested after watching the presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama at age ten. In middle and high school, I got involved in local and federal campaigns in Appleton, and politics quickly became a passion. But growing up in a place where I was surrounded by woods, lakes and nature, my other main passion—which is even more important to me than my political affiliation—was my love for the environment. I didn’t see nature as inherently political or partisan, so I separated it from my political activism. 

Then, during my freshman year of college, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were facing off in the 2016 presidential election and I saw climate denial on stage from “my own side.” I felt left behind and frustrated by that. After that debate, I wrote on Twitter that I was going to start an organization to get conservatives back to the table on environmental issues. I bought a domain name in the middle of that election year and became the ACC’s chairman and founder. It’s now a seven-year-old organization with 40,000 members across the country and over 200 chapters of young conservatives who want climate action and want their party to take a different stance.

POW: How did you get connected with POW and how have we worked together in the past?

BB:  I’ve been a fan of POW for a long time. It’s a perfect example of how this issue of climate change touches so much more than politics. The current narrative talks about the environment being so political but when you love the outdoors and nature, politics isn’t something that comes to mind for me and POW embodies that in such an amazing way. 

I connected with Jeremy Jones after watching “Purple Mountains,” which led to speaking at events and joint social media promotions.  That led to the ACC partnering with POW to lobby for some of the same policies and hold meetings with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Our work together shows that the one thing that can unite us as Americans is our love of the outdoors, our communities and nature. 

POW has been a great resource to show elected officials that this is bigger than the political wars that they battle day to day. This work is actually about protecting the places that we all call home. All of the POW athletes that I’ve worked with over the years are amazing people who don’t take a partisan stance. They take a human and planet stance first. As someone who is an environmentalist first and conservative second, it’s uplifting to be a partner of POW.

Benji speaking at the 2021 POW Leadership Summit in Buena Vista, Colorado | Photo by Donny O’Neill

POW:  You just released your new book, “The Conservative Environmentalist.” Without giving too much away, what is the book about?

BB: This is the first book written by someone on the right about how to tackle climate change. “The Conservative Environmentalist” outlines how the issue got so divided, why this happened, how this divide is unnecessary and how we can solve that. It’s about how—whether conservative or progressive—we actually don’t have many differences on this issue. The book explores what solutions we can tackle in the short and medium term and what we can do to make the maximized impact at the lowest cost that could potentially benefit us as Americans. 

“The Conservative Environmentalist” is a blueprint for progressives on how to engage conservatives. It’s also a guide for conservatives on how to work with progressives in a thoughtful way on how we can detail an agenda that both sides can get behind. In an election cycle, it’s imperative that we have the knowledge to push for specific policies that elected officials will be able to carry out regardless of who wins. We need climate action now—no matter if Trump wins, Biden wins, or if the Republicans or Democrats get the House and Senate. This book provides the best opportunity for us to do that.

POW: You mentioned earlier that you were seeing people on your side denying climate change. Do you see conservative lawmakers coming around at all on the issue, and if so, why do you think that shift is happening?

BB: There has been a great shift that hasn’t been recognized in the public eye yet. Most people wouldn’t believe that the vast majority of Republicans in this country believe in climate change and that it’s a priority depending on the poll. It’s somewhere between 60 and 70 percent and Congress is starting to reflect that.

I would attribute this partially to the fact that conservative voters are now speaking out about it in a way where their elected officials want to engage with them. It’s also because they’re starting to see that the solutions to climate change don’t have to be against their values and that’s where the divide comes from. People are scared that the solutions are going to hurt them or their communities, but in this new era of pro-climate conservatism, they’re realizing that they can use climate solutions to help boost their communities and make them stronger. It’s a great message that’s starting to resonate, but it’s slower than we need it to be, especially because the bearer of the party is not necessarily there yet.

POW: Climate change can be a polarizing conversation and it shouldn’t be. What advice would you give to someone who is trying to find common ground with someone who has that opposing view?

BB: Don’t assume that because someone denies climate change that they hate the environment or that they aren’t willing to embrace climate action. They are feeling left behind by the conversation and by the solutions provided so they’ve run to the other side, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about the environment. They just don’t want climate solutions to hurt their communities and they haven’t seen an alternative way forward yet. We need to come into the conversations with an open mind and talk about things that would benefit their communities. I think people would be pretty shocked by how many folks they could bring into the fold if they took that approach.

POW: What kind of impact do you think we could have if we could get everyone who loves the outdoors, regardless of their political affiliation, to rally around climate advocacy?

BB: The reality is that almost every human in this country and on this planet has a special connection with the outdoors. If we can get people to put these political stereotypes aside and work towards the same common goal and debate solutions instead of the problem, I think we’d solve almost all these challenges head on. At some point, people are going to realize that the political ideologies that we’ve been putting ourselves in on this are so unnecessary and that the places that we all hike, fish, hunt, ski, walk and run are what we’re trying to protect.

I might dislike my “political enemy” and other issues, but we can work together on this one. When people start to realize that, I think we’re going to make a lot of progress. Even in the worst political divide that we’ve had as a country in a very long time, the love for the outdoors is the one area of overlap. It’s already starting to happen with bi-partisan bills, politicians and unlikely companies working on climate. We just need to make it the norm instead of something that’s happening behind the scenes.

POW: What role do you think how the Outdoor State can play in supporting the clean energy transition?

BB: POW has an unparalleled opportunity to change the course of this issue because of the connection to nature and the ethos and mission that the organization brings to the table. That really is at the core of why I feel so passionately about working with POW. If POW can work to politicize this and then raise the voices of those who love the outdoors, then we’re going to have action quicker than we would ever have thought. 

When you have people’s emotional connection tied to their advocacy rather than their partisan ideology, it can go a lot further and POW brings that in a way other organizations can’t. We might not have all the solutions and we might not see eye to eye on everything, but POW is bringing that love for the outdoors first. I have met so many people through POW that I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of issues, including how to solve environmental challenges, but we can sit down and have a really productive dialogue, open each other’s minds to different viewpoints and come away with a better understanding of each other and an opportunity to work together on where we do agree. That is pretty significant and when you’re connecting on the emotional side or the human side then you’re able to find that common ground and can succeed with taking it out of the culture wars of politics. 

POW: To wrap things up, what do you hope readers will take away from the book?

BB: I hope “The Conservative Environmentalist” helps people understand that there is optimism and a potential for progress that’s right in front of us. Nature was nonpartisan and it will be again if we allow it to be. There is nothing we can’t achieve and we can protect the environment in the way that we’ve always been pushing for. If people come away with that and understand how we can do that, then that would be a huge win for the whole planet.

Feeling inspired and want to read the book? You can purchase “The Conservative Environmentalist” here. You can also keep educating yourself on climate advocacy and how to find common ground with others by reading our Climate Advocate’s Guidebook.

Stacie Sullivan

Author: Stacie Sullivan

Stacie always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the ski industry from a young age, having first clicked into skis at the age of 4 and writing her 8th grade career project on being a professional skier. While her dreams of becoming a professional athlete didn’t quite pan out the way she planned at […]