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Young evangelicals want climate action; Republicans should pay attention

global warming, climate change
(Photo: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado) |

For the first time in a decade, a bipartisan climate bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act dropped earlier this week and proposes a fee be placed on carbon emissions and that the revenue raised be returned directly to American households.

The idea is simple: The costs of carbon pollution (i.e. skyrocketing rates of asthma near coal-fired power plants, rising global temperatures, rapidly acidifying oceans) are not captured in the transaction when a utility buys coal or fracks natural gas in order to fire its furnaces. Instead, those costs are passed on to the rest of us in the form of sick kids, ozone action days, sweltering heat waves, deadly extreme weather, and a more unpredictable and dangerous future. In order for the true cost of carbon to be captured by the market, then, we must put a price on it. In this case, $15/ton of carbon dioxide to start and $10 more per year until emissions reduction targets are met.

The idea is not a new one. Consensus has long existed among economists of all political persuasions (including this year’s Nobel Laureate in Economics) that a price on carbon is the best way to capture the external costs of burning fossil fuels. Earlier this year, Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL-26) introduced a similar bill, called the MARKET CHOICE Act. It was a market-based solution to a market-based problem. In championing it, Rep. Carlos Curbelo did what Republicans are supposed to do: put forward common sense, market-based solutions to our nation’s problems.

Instead of being welcomed for the thoughtful conservative solution that it was, Rep. Curbelo’s plan was instead received by many conservatives with derision. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform wasted no time casting it as "a long-term goal of the big government Left." The conservative National Review called it “wealth redistribution at its worst.”

Perhaps this knee-jerk, boilerplate blowback is why House Republicans have spent the last decade passing nonbinding but potently symbolic resolutions against the very idea of a carbon tax as “detrimental to the U.S. economy” and why Senate Republicans have simply kept their mouths shut entirely. Given the resistance currently being faced by Rep. Curbelo, it’s certainly the safe choice for Republicans.

Or is it?

Something else has been happening the last ten years that might interest Republican lawmakers who survived the midterms and are hoping to keep their seats in 2020 and beyond.

Technology costs for renewable energy have been plummeting, making them cost competitive with traditional fossil fuel sources in several markets.

The renewable energy sector is adding jobs at a staggering rate, employing more workers in the solar industry alone than in oil, gas, and coal combined.

World governments, business, local municipalities, universities, faith communities, and the general public are reaching a new consensus around the reality of climate change and the need to take bold action to address it.

A rising generation of conservative voters—Millennials and Generation Z—have been coming of age and overwhelmingly support clean energy investment and curbing the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

And young evangelicals have been standing up by the thousands on campuses, in churches, and in countless communities to demand that our lawmakers reflect the gospel values of compassion, justice, and stewardship in their climate policies.

It’s been the conventional political wisdom for decades that the evangelical community in the U.S. overwhelmingly identifies with the policies and rhetoric of the Republican party. The fact that 81% of white evangelicals who voted in the 2016 election threw their support behind Trump was simply the latest confirmation. With 36% of registered voters identifying as “born again” or “evangelical”, that’s a sizeable chunk of voters that Republicans are smart to keep happy.

But the conventional wisdom is changing. As the children of the younger Baby Boomers, Millennials make up the largest generation in the country and all of them (by most demographer’s definition of the group) are already of voting age. In the 2018 midterms, the older members of Generation Z cast their first ballots. These generations skew significantly left.

But what of that perennial stronghold of Republican support: white evangelicals? The evidence should give Republicans pause. Younger evangelicals are much more sensitive than their parents and grandparents to the discrimination experienced by other groups like their LBGTQ and undocumented friends and family. Pew also recently found that even though most young evangelicals still consider themselves conservative, a majority of them (55%) favor stricter environmental laws. This means that conservative orthodoxy is shifting as a new generation of conservatives come of age, and current conservative lawmakers would do well to stand up and pay attention.

Many current Republican Members of Congress were sent to Washington by older evangelicals. A piece of friendly advice for them: if you want to keep your seat, start listening to the younger ones too.

That means stop taking money from fossil fuel interests to run your campaigns.

It means not voting for fossil fuel subsidies and toothless resolutions meant to chill the national climate change conversation.

It means joining groups like the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus and championing meaningful climate policy.

Rep. Curbelo will exit Congress come January, and his bill will leave with him, but the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act and iterations like it are here to stay. Wise Republicans would do well to study and to take them seriously.

The 2018 midterms laid bare the stark political reality facing Republicans in our current moment: embrace the know-nothingism of Trump’s GOP (and pay the eventual price) or move toward the center in order to appeal to a broader base of voters, including the rising generation of a large portion of their base: young evangelicals.

If Republicans make the wrong choice and continue to ignore the need for bold climate action, that rising generation behind them will be all too happy to take their seat.

Rev. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap is the National Organizer and Spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmeyaardschaap.

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