SEATTLE — When you ask him if people think he's crazy, University of Washington student Benji Backer laughs.
"Yea," he smiled. "There are a lot of walls to go up when you say you’re a conservative, especially on campus."
Two years ago, Backer founded the American Conservation Coalition, a group of young conservatives who care about environmental issues.
“It is somebody who believes that the environment matters and that they are right of center. It’s really that simple,” Backer said. “The point is that if you are conservative, you can care about the environment and we need to care about it as conservatives and make it a priority.”
Though it's rare to hear someone self-describe as a "liberal environmentalist," the group feels its necessary to add conservative to their description to combat long-held stereotypes.
“I think it is to bring conservatives back into the environmental discussion because the reason you don’t hear ‘liberal environmentalist’ really is because, for the longest time, and something our organization is trying to change, is that the environment has been a very one-sided issue. And so, we say ‘conservative environmentalist’ because when people think ‘environmentalist’, they automatically think left,” said ACC member Spencer McLaughlin.
The principals of conservative environmentalism, McLaughlin says, are promoting and embracing the free market, finding alternative solutions beyond regulation, and investing in technology sectors to seek change.
Their mission statement on the ACC website reads: "The American Conservation Coalition is changing the narrative on environmental discussions through the promotion of free-market and pro-business environmentalism in legislatures, college campuses, the political arena, and beyond."
“And working with companies instead of against companies to help save the environment is really key, because corporations have the power to harm the environment, but they also have the power to help fix the environment,” Backer said.
ACC members regularly meet with legislators to make sure the older conservatives in government know that younger generations care about the environment.
"One of the things we always highlight in those meetings is, 'If you look at the polling data, young people really care about the environment. If you have a one-sided environmental discussion, young people who are just starting to get into politics and just starting to become voters, if they have any position at all on the environment, they're going to go to the Democrat party if the Republicans don't engage on the issue at all. And that's just not good for the environmental discussion," McLaughlin said.
As for President Trump's record on environmental issues, ACC members vary on their opinion.
"President Trump has a mixed record on the environment and he hasn’t talked about it that much. We were happy to see early in July, the President put on an event around environmentalism and talked about some of the successes of America has had over the past 30 or 40 years around environmental challenges. We thought that was a good first step for him talking about it more," Backer said.
"At the end of the day, we just don’t believe he focuses on the environment enough or talks about it from a positive manner," Backer continued. "Politics as it is in the United States is divisive as ever, and this is someplace we feel like we should be able to come together and have a positive discussion instead of just going after people all the time. We feel like the President has not necessarily lived up to that potential."
The ACC is now on 180 college campuses across the country and has created a Clean Energy Coalition which is supported by 30 College Republican state chairs.
"What I have found is that on this issue, if you come up front and say 'I’m a conservative but I work with an environmental organization on these issues,' it breaks down those barriers because people realize, no matter if they’re a student or an adult who is left of center, they realize that you agree on the premise that the environment is a priority," Backer said.