Startup upstarts: Benji Backer, 22, president and founder, American Conservation Coalition

This is the latest in our occasional series of millennials and young leaders in the climate space.

(David Callaway is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Callaway Climate Insights. He is the former president of the World Editors Forum, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today and MarketWatch, and CEO of TheStreet Inc.)

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — Benji Backer is happy to discuss politics with you. Just not when it comes to climate change.

“This is a generational issue — we don't see this through a political lens,” said the 22-year-old founder and president of the American Conservation Coalition, a non-profit group dedicated to encouraging conservatives to engage in climate change discussions.

Speaking by phone from Seattle, where he just graduated from the University of Washington, Backer discussed a new advertisement the group put out last week. Called “The Future is Watching,” the one-minute ad features some of the better past quotes about the environment from Republican luminaries, including the late President Ronald Reagan. (See the ad below)

Backer is frustrated that other countries are developing green or sustainable strategies for rebuilding their economies after the coronavirus, but that nothing is being said by Republicans leaders or President Donald Trump in the search for climate solutions in the U.S.

“(Trump) hasn’t done a lot on this issue at all, but it doesn't have to go against American values, and even putting America first, to rebuild sustainably.”

Backer launched the coalition while he was in college and maintains a high profile in the world of young climate activists, speaking on a panel with Greta Thunberg last year and appearing before Congressional panels. As a teenager in his hometown of Appleton, Wis., Backer was co-chair of the state chapter for Young Americans for Mitt Romney during his presidential campaign in 2012.

Conservatives, with their focus on markets and limited government, should help lead investment in areas such as carbon capture, nuclear technology, electric vehicle infrastructure, and creating more efficient natural gas production, he said.

There is environmental legislation from both sides of the floor, of both the U.S. House and the Senate, said Backer. The ad was a way of raising the idea that conservatives can lead, and have led, on climate, but also a message to them that his generation is watching.

“This issue is going to dictate the way people vote and if people aren't on the right side of this issue, they won't get re-elected,” he said.  

Calling the opportunity to add green strings to any economic rebuilding plan a “silver lining” of the Covid-19 crisis, Backer said the ACC would continue to push the idea on social media, but probably wouldn’t run another ad on TV.

“The majority of our audience actually doesn't watch TV,” he said. So going digital is the way to go.

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Do you know of folks making a difference, working on innovative and creative solutions to the challenges of climate change? Send us an email and we’ll consider featuring them in this series.