Todd Tanner has a pretty sweet offer for his fellow Montanans: a new shotgun in exchange for science-based evidence that he’s wrong about climate change.
The conservationist uses the challenge in an attempt to raise awareness about our warming planet. A lot of people where Tanner lives in Bigfork, Montana, would probably like to take him up on his offer: The state has one of the highest rates of outdoor recreationists in the country, and Tanner is no exception. He was planning on going hunting after we finished our interview. “You wouldn’t know it,” he said over the phone, “but I’m literally walking around in a pair of wool pants.”
Tanner is sure he’ll never have to hand over that new shotgun, though he says he would love to find out that anthropogenic climate change isn’t real. “If someone shows me the error of my ways they can have their choice,” he said. “They can have any rifle, shotgun, pistol, or rod I own, and I’ll walk away feeling like I got the better end of the bargain.”
Since 2011, Tanner has harnessed his prominent position in Montana’s hunting and fishing communities to get people engaged. After wildfires incinerated forests and droughts desiccated rivers in Big Sky Country this year, agitated sportsmen and women have become easier to find. Tanner’s nonprofit, Conservation Hawks, is part of a coalition of grassroots organizations trying to pull conservatives into the conversation about rising temperatures.
And it’s starting to work. There’s a small but growing alliance of concerned conservatives who want to reclaim climate change as a nonpartisan issue. This motley crew of lobbyists, Evangelical Christians, and far-right radicals call themselves the “eco-right.”
Christine Todd Whitman, former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, believes the eco-right has a real chance at inspiring action in Congress. With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, and a record-breaking year of environmental disasters finally behind us, 2018 could be the year the party reverses course. “If you look at the damage from just this last summer, from the floods, the droughts, the fires, it’s pushing $300 billion out of our economy,” Whitman said.
In Montana, Tanner diligently crafts his messaging in the hopes that he can turn even a small portion of the red state’s hunters and anglers into climate activists. There’s also a broader, national effort to target American conservatives. RepublicEn, for instance, is a coalition of more than 4,000 conservatives and libertarians pushing for environmental action. The organization hopes that, generations from now, the eco-right will be remembered for leading the United States out of the climate crisis and into the clean energy revolution.
Alex Bozmoski is the director of strategy and operations at RepublicEn. It’s a job he’s well-suited for — he used to be a climate denier himself.
As an undergrad at Georgetown, Bozmoski enrolled in a climate science class as a joke, planning to heckle the professor. But when challenged to justify his skepticism, Bozmoski found he had drawn erroneous conclusions fueled by conservative radio shows and Fox News. He cast around in his network of fellow Republicans and conservatives for people he could discuss his newfound understanding of climate change with, but he kept coming up empty.
Bozmoski found that, despite a long legacy of environmental leadership in the Republican Party, most modern-day members weren’t even thinking about our overheating planet, let alone figuring out how to address the problem.
Environmental issues weren’t always this polarizing. President Nixon set a firm national precedent when he created the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1970. The Senate passed the Clean Air Act that same year, 73 votes to 0.
Fast-forward to the 2012 presidential election, when multiple Republican candidates advocated for abolishing the EPA. Two years later, just one of all the 107 Republicans running for Senate mentioned climate change.
It’s no wonder Bozmoski felt betrayed by his party and ill-equipped to apply his conservative thinking to the issue. Yet he could still understand why his fellow conservatives didn’t care.
“When you don’t trust anyone talking about climate change, when you don’t see your tribe talking about solutions that fit with your worldview, it’s really easy to cope with the problem by ignoring it or denying it,” he said. Bozmoski did neither.
He went hunting for like-minded Republicans and found Bob Inglis, a former U.S. representative from South Carolina who came out swinging against global warming in 2010 (a position that likely cost him his seat in the House). Bozmoski tracked the ousted politician down in 2012, and they started a project called the Energy and Enterprise Initiative. RepublicEn grew out of that project. They popularized the term “eco-right.”
RepublicEn hit the road in 2014, traveling across the country to persuade conservatives that their principles and values can be applied to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, RepublicEn has held 300 events across America, mostly for expressly conservative audiences. Bozmoski estimates that the organization has reached more than 26,000 Americans. He gets people to listen by reminding them that they have power.
“You are the most important environmental champions on planet Earth,” he tells them. “Republicans won’t lead without first being led by their constituents. You have an outsized influence on our ability as humanity to deal with this problem.”
RepublicEn hopes to generate conservative support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. “It’s the only solution that’s effective enough to address climate change and fits with conservative principles,” Bozmoski said.
A carbon tax is pragmatic and relatively simple: Put a rising fee on the use of fossil fuels, forcing companies to curb their emissions. To make it revenue neutral—and more acceptable to conservatives—the money generated by that fee goes back to Americans through checks or by cutting payroll or sales taxes.
A carbon tax in any form is unlikely to make it through today’s highly partisan Congress, so, in the meantime, RepublicEn advocates for a level playing field for wind and solar energy, less leaky oil and gas infrastructure, and nuclear power.
Jessica Fernandez, a lifelong Floridian and conservative, was one of the people inspired by RepublicEn’s national eco-right tour. Her upbringing might have had something to do with it. “At my house,” she said, “we grew up with solar panels on the roof and composting.”
In 2014, she met Alex Bozmoski and Debbie Dooley, head of a subset of the Tea Party called the Green Tea Party. Fernandez, a long-time director of the Miami Young Republicans, liked their pitch that conservatives should be leaders in conserving the environment. “It’s groundbreaking, I know,” she said with a chuckle. When trying to engage other Republicans on green issues, she quickly learned that an alarmist attitude just doesn’t work.
What approach does work? A focus on money. Fernandez said that conservatives are more likely to respond positively if you say, “Hey! Fixing the climate is something that can benefit you economically.” She tells them about community solutions like solar co-ops, groups of homeowners who use their collective purchasing power to install solar on the cheap, thereby reducing monthly electric bills.
Tanner, the conservationist from Montana, approaches the issue from a different angle. He thinks talking to conservatives about climate change requires language that is hyper-specific and localized.
The fine lines between demographics are razor-sharp. Messaging that works for a hunter might not work for a fisherman, even though both face the same set of environmental consequences: a scarcity of fish and game. “It’s almost like code,” he said. “As soon as you try and talk to people who aren’t like you, all of these barriers go up.”
For that reason, Tanner says the messenger and the message have to be authentic. He spends his weeks customizing language that personally appeals to various sub-demographics of sportsmen and women. There are millions of hunters and anglers in the United States. “That’s a ton of us,” he said. “If even 20 percent or 30 percent of them got engaged, it would have a huge impact.”
James Tolbert is an unlikely environmental lobbyist. He spent 27 years helping big corporations clean up pollution. In 2013, the engineer was wrapping up work on the fallout from a million gallons of crude oil spilling from the Enbridge Pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan when he decided to switch teams. He traded in his senior position at energy infrastructure firm AECOM for a role as a lobbyist at Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
While Conservation Hawks and RepublicEn use grassroots organizing to drum up support among conservatives, lobbyists like Tolbert use a “grasstops” approach to push Republican representatives in Congress to support solutions.
We “create political space with a member of Congress by showing him that there is support from key members in his community,” Tolbert said. Citizens’ Climate Lobby calls these key community members “influencers” — business leaders, members of the chamber of commerce, even regional newspaper editorial boards. He sees them as crucial to getting anywhere with members of Congress.
When a Republican representative hesitates to accept climate change for fear of losing an upcoming reelection campaign, a well-placed opinion piece in a hometown newspaper or an endorsement from a local business leader can occasionally tip the scales.
It’s premature to say the winds of change are blowing, but we may be seeing the beginnings of a breeze. This month, more than 100 congressional lawmakers, including 11 House Republicans, wrote a letter to President Trump urging him to address climate change and the threat it poses to national security after his administration left the issue out of its national security strategy.
William Ruckelshaus, who served as EPA administrator under Nixon and President Reagan, has met with a number of eco-right organizations. He believes massive support for significant action on global warming is “going to have to include conservative groups, and virtually every discipline in society.” When Republicans do finally warm up to the idea of a conservative environmental movement, the eco-right will step out of the wings.
“They’re going to begin to get worried” about the growing impacts of a warming planet, Ruckelshaus said. “If there are organizations that they feel more comfortable with, they’re more likely to sign on.”
The eco-right hasn’t exactly received a warm embrace from the conservative movement. In 2014, the Washington, DC-based public relations firm Berman and Company launched the Environmental Policy Alliance—yes, EPA for short. The outfit is “devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups.” Among its targets: climate-conscious organizations like Tanner’s Conservation Hawks.
Shortly after it started, the alliance launched a website called Green Decoys, which claims that left-wing environmental NGOs use sportsmen as a cover for their “radical environmental activist” agendas.
The site has a different informational video targeting each kind of American conservation group. In the “Montana” video, a man in camouflage carrying a rifle speaks straight into the camera. “I’m a real sportsman,” he says. “And I’m a member of organizations that support hunting and fishing.” His double appears on screen, wearing a camo neckerchief. “And I’m a phony sportsman,” the double says. “I support candidates that think we cling to our guns because we just don’t know any better.”
Tanner isn’t worried about people who question his legitimacy. “If the folks who run Green Decoys, and I’m well aware of who they are, want to get together and see who’s a better hunter or fisher, or who’s the real deal and who’s not,” he said, “we are more than happy to have that conversation.”
Bozmoski recognizes that some conservatives have gone too far down the path of denial to be receptive to RepublicEn’s message. “We aren’t big enough to go around persuading people who really believe, to their core, that this is a government conspiracy,” he said. “We don’t worry about the people on the fringe who are hobbyists in antagonism on climate change.”
Fernandez hopes the tide of support for environmental legislation will rise to the highest levels of government.
“Climate change doesn’t have a political affiliation,” she said. She believes that even President Trump might change his tune if the solution is “repackaged as something that benefits the United States of America.”
What should the eco-right do while the top dogs on Capitol Hill insist on looking the other way? Ruckelshaus, the former EPA chief, says to “keep on.” But as we descend into ever-worsening environmental chaos, the question remains: How soon can these conservatives alter the course of history?