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Young conservatives brought climate to the debate stage

Young conservatives brought climate to the debate stage
© UPI Photo

Last week, moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceRepublicans hammer Biden on infrastructure while administration defends plan GOP senator: Two sides 'far apart' on infrastructure compromise Biden economic adviser frames infrastructure plan as necessary investment MORE opened the first presidential debate of 2020 by saying, “we’ve got a lot to unpack here, gentlemen.” 

Within the first 10 minutes of the debate, President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE hit at least six different topics including the Supreme Court vacancy, the Affordable Care Act and the coronavirus pandemic. Few people expected the debate to be a respectful discussion about policy — it was not — but an unexpected question on climate change turned out to be the bright spot of the night. 

When the debate topics were announced, climate change was nowhere to be found. With wildfires raging in the West and hurricanes pummeling the South, environmental groups jumped into action, running social media campaigns with hashtags like #WhatAboutClimate and petitions to bring climate to the debate stage. By no coincidence, after nearly 50 minutes of back and forth, Wallace announced, “I want to talk about climate change.”

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In fact, climate change was then discussed for longer than in any American presidential debate in history. Wallace asked questions about the science of climate change, forest management and each candidate’s climate strategy moving forward. For the first time, Trump acknowledged man-made climate change when he said, “I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes. I think to an extent, yes.”

Put simply, this is because of the work of young conservative activists. For years now, the future leaders of the GOP have been steadily pushing party elders to accept climate science and develop conservative solutions. Their efforts were vindicated last Tuesday night. 

Even so, the GOP still has a long way to go. It’s been easy for conservatives to attack top-down, mandate-heavy policies with astronomical price tags. The Green New Deal is a rich target. Yet, to win the votes of the 79 percent of young Republican voters who want to see climate leadership from their party, Republicans lawmakers must provide a better alternative. This has begun on the local, state and Congressional levels. Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyLoyalty trumps policy in Stefanik's rise, Cheney's fall Cheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts Likely Cheney successor appears on Bannon show to tout GOP unity MORE (R-Calif.) unveiled a number of climate bills, signaling a shift on the issue. Trump, on the other hand, had — until the first debate — ignored the rising tide. 

Hopefully, Trump’s statement represents the end of the debate over climate science and the beginning of a truly bipartisan effort to develop real policy solutions. For both Democrats and Republicans, the stakes are high. Climate-conscious Millennials and Gen Zers now makeup half of the population and 37 percent of eligible voters. 

Regardless of the outcome of the election, the United States must reassert itself as a global leader in the fight against climate change. Investing in clean energy workforce development, expanding the natural carbon sequestration potential of America's farms and forests and ending China’s chokehold on the critical minerals necessary for building solar panels and batteries are several of the many opportunities for bipartisan action. 

In a month, Americans will elect the candidate they believe can steer our country through economic uncertainty and out of a global pandemic. Climate change is the next great threat facing the United States and the world. To win the votes of young Americans, Trump and Biden must prove that they understand the problem and are prepared to put real solutions into action. 

Quill Robinson is the Vice President of Government Affairs at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow him on Twitter @QuillRobinson.