How to Talk About Clean Energy With Conservatives

Angel Garcia, of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, is working to persuade Republicans about the need for renewable energy. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why his group avoids mentioning climate change when it makes its pitch to conservatives

Young Conservatives for Energy Reform was formed in 2012 to promote a green energy agenda for Republicans. But the phrase “climate change” isn’t one you’ll find on the organization’s website. Instead, it points to other issues, such as national security, as reasons to support renewable energy. Angel Garcia, the group’s national outreach coordinator, says there are also libertarian-based reasons that conservatives should be pro-green energy. “Do we have to be tied to the grid? Why not make it easier to put solar panels on one’s house?”

Garcia, a Chicago attorney in private practice, admits that pushing renewables in conservative circles is an uphill battle.

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Angel Garcia

“We have an ideology that seems like it’s ‘Drill, baby drill,’ with nothing else. So we have to fight against stereotypes that if you’re for clean energy, then you are not really a Republican.”

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Garcia says the Republican Party has a vested interest in embracing clean energy since the issue resonates with young conservatives. “As demographics shift, this is becoming a more important issue,” he says. “This is an issue that will move people to the polls. [And it] is only going to become more important. So it’s better to get in front of the issue now and embrace it.”

Yale Environment 360: What’s the conservative pitch for clean energy development.

Angel Garcia: We have to look at clean energy from a national security point of view. We are very lucky to have some former generals that come speak to the Young Conservatives, and the point of view here is that it is so important to have an energy-independent America. If we are dependent on other countries that may not have our best interests in mind for energy, that’s a problem.

e360: In a time when we’ve got cheap energy in the U.S. and a fracking boom, I wonder if that selling point is a harder to pitch than it would have been say a few years ago.

Garcia: What’s not to say that in 6 months we won’t be back at four-dollar gas? Especially when you see the way that the markets are still being pushed around by some cartels, gas is being sold cheaply, many people believe, so that they can get rid of some other players and then eventually move that back to a profitable point of view. So are we happy that we have cheap energy? Of course. Is it great to see fracking working? Of course. We’re not here to say that we need to attack oil or drilling. We’re just here to say, “Look, we need to look at clean energy and renewables as a great way to produce energy, one that is cheap and abundant.”

As a Republican I really think that it is unfair that we continue to not lead on this issue. Quite frankly, this issue is rarely spoken of on our side of the aisle, when it really should be.

Instead of fighting over climate change, we can all rally around freedom and national security.

e360: National security aside, are there other reasons why a Republican should engage on this issue?

Garcia: Absolutely. So many in our grassroots are outdoorsmen, hunters, people that want to conserve and take care of our planet. This is something that so many of our evangelical base believe in. But it’s also about freedom. Do we have to be tied to the grid? Do we need to be tied to Big Energy? Why not make it easier to put solar panels on one’s house? It’s a good thing to be energy independent from big corporations. So I think that’s the point of view that many of the libertarian-leaning friends in our coalition really hold on to.

e360: Since your organization has chosen not to use climate change as part of its rallying cry, do you feel hamstrung by that?

Garcia: We’re trying to push clean energy forward. To do that we need to work with people on our side of the aisle. Now, on our side of the aisle some people believe that there is climate change. And of that percentage, some believe that it’s manmade and some believe that it’s not manmade. So instead of trying to fight over climate change, I think we can all rally around having more freedom and tackle this from a point of view of national security.

e360: Your organization has repeatedly called on GOP presidential hopefuls to embrace a clean energy agenda. That call hasn’t been heeded. How disheartened are you by that? Give me your take on what the GOP candidates are saying, or not saying, on this issue.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump face off in a Republican presidential debate.

Garcia: I am a Republican and Hispanic. So I have advocated for issues that are important in the Hispanic community. Now I’m going to advocate for clean energy. And these are sometimes issues that do not come into the mainstream. If you don’t advocate, they never will be. So we need numbers, both financial and at the polls, to be able to move people. Politicians from either party don’t move unless they are pushed or prodded. And we have data. Young people more than older people think that this is an important issue. Younger people more than older people believe that clean energy is something that needs to be talked about for various reasons.

As demographics shift, this is becoming a more important issue. This is an issue that will move people to the polls. As we move forward, this issue is only going to become more important. So it’s better to get in front of the issue now and embrace it. If you want to get in touch with these younger voters, this is something you can’t ignore.

e360: And when you do have those conversations with those elected officials, what are a couple of priorities that your organization talks about with them?

Garcia: Last year, we talked about expanding the tax breaks for wind and solar, which did happen. So we’re very happy about that. And we will continue to push things like that and sometimes we talk to state and gubernatorial candidates and leaders, and say, “Hey, what can we specifically do in this state to make it more clean energy friendly.”

If you want to get in touch with these younger voters, this is something you can’t ignore.

e360: You mentioned tax breaks for renewables as a positive. I’m wondering if you get push back from some conservatives who say that’s the government picking energy winners and losers.

Garcia: Of course they are going to say that. But let’s be real, the government does get involved with tax breaks here, subsidies there. And when you pick winners and losers, or when you try to even the playing field people have to make the argument, here’s why this is important. And we make the argument, “Look this is important, here’s why. We’re not asking for government intervention. We’re actually doing what every Republican wants. Let’s get some tax breaks!”

e360: And how about those tax incentives for oil companies. Has your organization taken a position on that?

Garcia: Again, we want to unite and not divide. When we get asked about it, we say, well, let’s be honest, it’s not like nonrenewables aren’t getting help from the government too, if we’re completely blunt.

e360: There are those who say, if you really want to spur the growth of clean energy, a carbon tax is the way to do it. What’s your organization’s take on a carbon tax?

Garcia: At this point I think our membership is not ready to say that a carbon tax is how we want to go. That’s not to say we won’t in the future. Our organization at this point hasn’t said that they’re on board for or against the carbon tax. Even within our most die-hard clean energy supporters that may not be the way to go, given that so many of our members are staffers, grassroots leaders in the Republican Party. And that has just not typically polled very well with our voters.

At this point our membership is not ready to say that a carbon tax is how we want to go.

e360: Nevada recently eliminated one-for-one net metering for solar customers in that state. The head of Nevada’s largest utility said that non-solar customers were subsidizing solar ones. A utility in Arizona is also pushing for reduction in net metering rates. What do you make of this pushback on net metering by utility companies, and should there be regulations to protect net metering?

Garcia: I think more options are better. I think that being able to have the option of going solar and then selling that back to the companies is a good thing. There’s going to be self interest from all sides on what’s best. Obviously companies are going to try to profit as much as they can and they have every right to. But as citizens we have the right to say that this is not what I want. We want to have more freedom and to be able to pretty much get off the grid.

These are conversations that need to be had, but I feel that voters will be in favor of legislation that will give less strength to the energy companies and more strength to the individual citizens.

e360: Latino and other minority communities are more affected by pollution health issues, such as asthma. Latinos tend to steer Democrat. Do you think if the Republican Party adopted a more clean energy message that might entice more Latino voters towards it?

Garcia: When we look at Latinos, it’s a much younger demographic. Not only are they younger, but they are at a stage of their lives when they are raising families. So I do believe that health would be a winning issue. But I think the real push here will be pushing the increase in jobs, good jobs, in America. Having a boom in clean energy, I think, will provide good jobs. Not just white-collar jobs, but blue-collar jobs, which will help all people, but particularly young families, which is what the Latino demographic is right now.

We must fight against stereotypes that if you’re for clean energy, you’re not really a Republican.

e360: What advice would you give to liberals on how to talk to conservatives about this issue and how to make progress on it?

Garcia: There is no doubt that Republicans and Democrats in the last number of years have not gotten along. This is not like the days of Ronald Reagan working with House leadership where some things could get passed. But here you need to speak the Republican language. We can get legislation passed, maybe not as expansive as some people want, but it could actually get passed, if you could speak our language. So speaking our language does not mean “manmade global warming” and you’re going to reduce the rising tides of the ocean. You speak to Republicans like, “Let’s cut taxes for an emerging market and make America energy independent.”

Who wouldn’t want lower taxes for emerging technologies? Who wouldn’t want to make it easier for wind and solar and batteries? That legislation could be passed. Yes, it will benefit the left, who believe that this will solve climate change. Will it also make America more energy independent? Yes. So why we say this issue is important will vary from voter to voter and party to party.

e360: Republican Jay Faison is a wealthy North Carolina businessman who’s committed millions of dollars of his own money to fund Republican candidates and legislation that “support market-based solutions for clean energy and climate issues.”

Do you think financial support on that level is crucial to counter support that Republican politicians may be getting from those that don’t have an interest in clean energy?

Garcia: Yeah, and it’s not just people voting, but it’s also financial support, so we can make the argument of why this is important for energizing our grassroots. Look, sending your supporters to D.C. costs money. So even “grassroots support” is something that you need a financial commitment for.

We have an ideology that seems like it’s “Drill, baby, drill,” with nothing else. We have to fight against stereotypes that if you’re for clean energy, then you are not really a Republican, and if you’re for clean energy, you’re leftist or liberal. It’s a hurdle that we have to get past.

e360: Faison says, “If conservatives fail to put forward our own agenda, climate change policy will likely go the way of health care — the Democrats owned the answers, and we ended up with Obamacare.” So do you have similar concerns about energy policy being controlled by Democrats?

Garcia: Oh absolutely, he’s absolutely right. We need to start having people on our side of the aisle understand that we just can’t leave this issue to one party. We need to bring up solid ideas, and we need to work with our base to say that these are the issues that we have, this is why we believe it’s important, and this is how we’re going to move forward on it.

So it’s absolutely correct. We cannot not be a part of this game. There needs to be two teams playing, and our team needs to wake up and get to work.