Opinion | Energy & Environment

Climate change — Trump's golden opportunity

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

On Tuesday, the Trump administration unveiled two executive orders intended to bolster his green credentials. The first signals the president's support for the One Trillion Trees initiative, creating a council to oversee its federal implementation. The second creates a so-called "water subcabinet" to modernize operations in water infrastructure and ensure universal access to clean drinking water. While small, the two new orders come at a strategic time in this election. 

Surprisingly, climate change has staked an important position at the table of presidential issues, with Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden spending more time discussing the matter than during any other presidential debate in history. Yet neither of the recent executive orders mentions climate change. 

The numbers don't lie. Sixty-nine percent of likely voters say that they would have a more favorable view of Trump if he embraced a conservative approach to climate change. That number rises to 73 percent for voters between the ages of 18 and 34, and to an astounding 90 percent for GOP voters aged 18 to 54. Embracing a conservative climate platform is one of the surest ways for Trump to not only boost his personal popularity as a presidential candidate, but also the appeal of the GOP more broadly.

These poll numbers, released this week by The Conservation Coalition, where I serve as national policy director, and The Conservative Energy Network, come off the back of years of progress already made by Republicans. Whereas the environment has long been seen as a typically left-wing issue, that narrative has changed significantly in recent years. 

Right before COVID-19 hit, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) introduced a package of several important environment bills, focusing on carbon capture technologies and natural solutions, and marking the first comprehensive GOP policy agenda on the issue. Even in the last few months, major bipartisan innovation bills have been spearheaded by Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) with the American Energy Innovation Act. Congressional Republicans have also led on conservation efforts. Under the leadership of Republicans such as Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Steve Daines (Mont.), the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law on Aug. 4, permanently funding our National Parks.

This progress is encouraging, especially to the thousands of young conservatives that overwhelmingly want their party to take climate change seriously. Yet the GOP still struggles to provide a convincing alternative to the Democrats' Green New Deal. As the recent polls suggest, there is significant room for improvement in the minds of the majority of voters - a prospect any Republican up for reelection should heed. Indeed, rarely does public polling provide such a clear and tangible avenue for greater electoral appeal. 

During the debate two weeks ago, this culminated in Trump acknowledging the reality of humanity's impact on the climate for the first time ever. Young and eco-conscious conservatives around the country sighed in relief, despite knowing we still need much more from the president. But it felt that, at long last, the debate has moved beyond mere recognition of the problem and toward actual solutions and policies. Trump should signal to voters that he is able to put forward more than mere rhetoric on the climate, and will pursue real action and real solutions. The polls indicate that there is absolutely no downside, and only enormous upside. 

And this is indeed where the golden opportunity lies for Trump. If he wins in November, he is unconstrained by the prospect of fighting for reelection four years later again and will undoubtedly start thinking about his legacy. If Trump wants to create a genuine legacy, and one that will be carried forward by generations of Republicans, then he must lean into the idea of conservative climate action. After all, nearly three-quarters of Americans would view the president more favorably if he put forward a conservative climate plan. By focusing on American global leadership, infrastructure modernization, natural solutions and energy innovation, the president has the opportunity to shape the environmental debate in a bipartisan way no president has been able to in history. A President Trump that brings Congress together on tackling climate change would not only cement his legacy for generations to come, but also represent a real reckoning of America's greatness. 

Most importantly, the president should be assured that there is no lack of conservative solutions to environmental problems. An all-of-the-above energy approach, energy market deregulation, smart research and development investment, carbon capture & storage (CCS) technology, new-generation nuclear power and regulatory streamlining are all policy avenues that should fall within the Republican climate playbook. Ultimately, the conservative approach should be about prioritizing technology innovation and competition, and prioritizing real action over empty rhetoric. 

Mr. President, you have an opportunity to do more for the environment than AOC and the Green New Deal acolytes ever will. Seize it.

Christopher Barnard is the national policy director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow the organization on Twitter @ACC_National.

Outbrain