Benji Backer is Building the Conservative Youth Climate Movement

A young Republican from Wisconsin is pushing for bipartisan action on climate change

15 mins read
illustration: Tig Claymore

Benji Backer was an active kid who dreamed of playing NFL football. Then, in the summer of 2008 at the age of ten, he blew out his ankle playing tennis. The doctor told him he had a “floating bone” that would take a year to heal. Benji had no idea what to do with all his time. 

He soon found himself–where else?–on the sofa watching TV. Flipping through the channels, he landed on a presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. Benji grew curious as he watched the candidates spar and impressed that they disagreed with each other without resorting to name-calling. Even though two opponents didn’t see eye to eye, they shook hands and smiled at one another at the end of the debate. Ten-year-old Benji understood that both candidates wanted the same thing: to protect our country and make it better.

The debate marked Benji Backer’s political awakening. As he researched McCain’s ideas, he found a lot he agreed with. The former Senator from Arizona was a veteran; so was Benji’s grandfather. Benji related to McCain’s story and liked the things he stood for. The next day, Benji signed up as a volunteer for McCain’s campaign in Wisconsin, where he lived. 

Today, Benji is a prominent conservative climate activist who has worked with Greta Thunberg—they testified in Congress together—and other major environmental advocates. But his political journey began all those years ago on the couch with an injured foot. When he was in 5th grade and already more politically active than anyone in his family, doubtful adults would say: “You’re active in politics? You’re so young! How can you believe these things or how can you even know?” But Benji knew what he believed, and the more people doubted him, the more determined he became to make a difference.

In 2012, during the Governor’s recall election, Benji made the most phone calls of any volunteer in the state of Wisconsin. He also got to meet some really cool people that became his mentors in the political world, because he was working so hard for their success that they wanted to take him under their wing. By sixteen, Benji had broken out of Wisconsin and began working on the national level.

Other than politics, Benji’s favorite thing was being outside. He loved the peace he found in nature, hiking at his family’s cabin every weekend, looking for wild animals and fishing on the lake. But Benji felt conflicted: His love for the outdoors seemed somehow at odds with his political beliefs. He knew the earth that he loved so much was in danger; that climate change was a serious and urgent issue. But many of the conservatives he looked up to didn’t acknowledge the impending threat. The people he heard talking the loudest about climate change were Democrats. 

“Why is it that we can’t find common ground on fighting climate change and protecting the environment?” Beni wondered. As he researched the issue, he found no reason for such a partisan divide. He got more involved in fighting for the environment, because he felt frustrated that politics weren’t representing his beliefs on the issue.

“For me the environment has never been about politics, it’s been about, look: we all share this planet, we all have different stakes in the planet, we all have different abilities and what we can do to protect it,” Benji said. “But we all have a common ground and a common need to protect [the environment].” Benji decided to step up and do something about it.

Most people associate climate change with the Democratic party. So why is it framed as a liberal issue? Well, it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, climate conservation was once a strong tenet of the Republican platform. But in the last ten years, that has changed. “With social media it’s easier for politicians to pit each other against one another than to actually solve problems,” Benji explains. “Because when you pit against one another you get attention, you get media coverage, you get more likes, you get more retweets, you get more news hits.” As Benji sees it, politicians started going to war over climate change because they could use that to garner attention and win elections. 

“Politicians on the right started talking about how much they hated the policies of the left,” Benji said, “and so instead of coming up with their own [climate platform] they just kind of ran the other way and either didn’t engage or were focused on kind of denying the problem existed.” And Democrats realized, “wow, this is something we can really win on, we can be the sole leaders on this.” According to Benji, this created the climate denial and political stalemate that we are experiencing today. 

Backer explains that solving the climate crisis will take major government intervention. “Every person on this planet is experiencing environmental issues in one way or another, and it affects them one way or another. If you only have half of the population [Democrats] at the table and not the other half then you aren’t getting solutions for the other half of the population and that’s a disservice to the environment as well as to those people.”

Some people have yet to accept that climate change is a reality. “It’s not that people don’t want to protect the environment or don’t even think that there’s an economic opportunity,” Benji said. “But the economic opportunities are largely provided for people or talked about for people in more urban and suburban areas.” So if you’re a farmer in rural Washington and the Governor is talking about planting more solar panels on the top of roofs in Seattle, that’s not going to resonate with you. In fact, you might want to stop that from happening because maybe you get power from a natural gas facility and if it gets shut down, maybe you’ll be left without power. 

“There’s just been a disconnect between urban environmentalism and rural environmentalism and the fact that both communities care a lot,” Benji said. “Most of the solutions so far have come from leaders who herald from big cities…We have not done a good job reaching middle America, and more rural folks and older generations as well, about what the economic opportunities are in their communities and how it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to completely change the way that they live.”

Benji’s grandparents were climate deniers and could not be convinced otherwise. But Benji learned that acknowledging how they felt and explaining why he cared about the environment made them a lot more open. Just sitting down and having that conversation changed their minds and now they even donate to his environmental organization, the American Conservation Coalition. Imagine if we all sat down with someone we knew who felt that way, and showed them why we care; those small things can make a big impact! We all have a role to play in solving the climate crisis and uniting opposing parties is a crucial piece of that. 

A few years ago, a 16-year-old girl named Brooklyn Brown started a chapter of Benji’s organization in Utah. After just a week on the job, Brooklyn planned an event attended by 65 locals, three of the four Utah representatives, and three members of Congress. Within months she was one of the most active chapter leaders across the U.S., restoring hiking trails, recruiting tons of people for the cause, and taking multiple members of Congress on hikes. She had truly built a movement. As a reward from Benji and his organization, she got to go COP26, the global climate summit, which took place in Glasgow.

“Young people in general, regardless of their political beliefs, have to stand up and say, ‘look, for us this isn’t about politics,’” Benji says. And if you’re not yet able to vote but you want to make a difference, Benji recommends you reach out to your elected officials. We might not realize it, but elected officials actually listen to us. They don’t want bad publicity and they don’t want to lose votes, so telling them you want action is a really big deal. 

“For young conservatives specifically,” Benji notes, “they have an unmatched power because a lot of conservatives never hear from their own voters.” Conservatives are used to receiving that sort of thing from Democrats, so “having an authentic messenger from the conservative side saying, ‘I want you to prioritize this as a fellow conservative,’ that is a really powerful message.”

When Benji was in high school, he wrote a letter–only a few paragraphs–to the newspaper in the small town he lived in. In the letter, he spoke to how he wanted action on a certain policy. “Within two days I got a call, and a letter, from all of my elected officials saying ‘thank you so much for writing this and I’m going to support that policy.’ And then that policy got passed.” 

Another time, Benji was volunteering dozens of hours a week for a state house race. The candidate won the primary by only a dozen votes, and Benji knew he had shifted enough votes to make the difference. “This is proof that using your individual voice for action and really volunteering in your community to make that happen actually does make a huge impact,” Benji says. 

As young people, this is our future. We are the ones who will deal with the consequences of climate change. We also have the most power because we are the biggest voting bloc, we are the reason the economy works because we are consumers, and as Benji said, “We’re young and we’re more bold and more passionate. We also have so much power in our voice that people listen to.” 

We need to take our actions further than an Instagram repost. The things we say and the actions we take add up. “There are endless ways for our influence to be infiltrated into the political dialogue,” Benji said. We can volunteer, meet with politicians, take part in local environmental initiatives, donate money, buy our clothes from sustainable brands, and so much more. 

“Each person and their decisions can make the decisions for dozens and dozens and dozens if not hundreds and thousands of other people. That is real influence, and that’s not just about one vote.” Think of something you can do in your community — someone you can talk to, a letter you can write, a thrift shop alternative to Urban Outfitters, a tree you can plant — something you can do to influence the future of our environment. “The worst thing we can do on this issue or any issue is to back away,” Benji said. “And the best thing we can do is to get involved.”

Gidgie Bass

Gidgie is a member of Kidizenship's Editorial and Social Media teams. She attends University School of Nashville in Nashville, Tennessee, and is an avid writer and skateboarder.

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