DAVENPORT, IA — When Dan Herrera asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) about the environment at a town hall meeting in Iowa last week, it almost seemed like a set-up.
After all, environmental groups have been known to plant their advocates among the crowds of Republican candidates’ events across the country, attempting to pressure them on issues like clean air and climate change. And Herrera’s question was framed the way any good environmentalist would ask it — first, an appeal to Rubio’s Catholic faith, and then, a direct question about specific policy.
“Pope Francis in the past couple days said a lot about the environment,” the 20-year-old Herrera said, smiling into the brightly lit stage where Rubio stood. “What environmental policies, if any, will you implement if you’re president?”
As it turned out, Herrera was not a member of 350.org or NextGen Climate Action, but a member of the Augustana College Republicans. Located at Augustana College just across the Missisippi River, the group is dedicated “to promoting the ideals and candidates of their party.”
The Republican party — at least in Washington, D.C. — has been roundly accused of being anti-environment. More than 56 percent of current Congressional Republicans deny climate change, and the chairman of the House Environment committee is a coal-loving climate science denier. Week after week, congressional Republicans hold hearings to decry the EPA’s proposed regulations on smog, coal ash, and drinking water, while calling other hearings to promote fracking, offshore drilling, and crude oil exports.
But among young Republicans like Herrera, the climate tide seems to be changing.
“Look, we all live here,” Herrera told ThinkProgress after the town hall. “I don’t like waking up every morning knowing that I’m wrapping my hands around my nieces’ and nephews’ necks, choking them out with the exhaust that I’m emitting. … I want them to see the same things that I see when I go outside when they’re my age. And I think that in the current pathway we’re at, that’s not going to be a possibility.”
Young Republicans like Herrera are far more likely to support government action on climate and the environment than their older counterparts. A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that, while fewer than half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents over age 50 support greenhouse gas regulations, approximately six in 10 of the same group under 50 do support those regulations — even if it means raising energy expenses.
In addition, more groups are forming and organizing to promote conservative clean energy and carbon-reducing policies. Before the first Republican debate, the groups Young Conservatives for Energy Reform and the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum gathered to promote their version of conservative environmentalism — “ending government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, boosting energy efficiency, advancing renewable sources like wind and solar power and moving away from the idea that ‘drill baby, drill’ is a solution.”
Herrera’s views largely aligned with that version. “Why are we still subsidizing oil? That shouldn’t be subsidized anymore. We should be supporting air and ethanol and solar,” he said.
“The amount of permanent jobs we can come up with in the clean energy industry is phenomenal,” he continued. “When I go to a wind farm, I see actual people working on [turbines] and talk to the designers — I see actual jobs out there. And I think that’s where the Republican solution comes in. It is very possible to stimulate the economy while continuing to produce jobs.”
As for his question for Rubio — what environmental policies would be support as president? — Herrera said he was satisfied with his answer, even though Rubio did not provide many specifics. Instead of saying what policies he would support, Rubio said he was in favor of clean air and water but “Here’s what I don’t support,” before explaining his opposition to EPA regulations.
Later, however, Rubio said he would was in favor of natural gas — which he called a “very clean fuel” — and other renewable sources. “But it has to be driven by markets, and it has to driven by innovation, not by by government mandates that pick winners and losers,” Rubio said.
That was the portion Herrera was impressed with. “The fact that he didn’t just shut it down and immediately say ‘we’re not going to do anything,’ that spoke volumes to me coming from a Republican standpoint,” he said.
Climate change, as it happened, was the one thing Herrera wanted Rubio to talk about more. In fact, Herrera criticized Rubio for not publicly accepting the science of climate change, which states that the phenomenon is caused by carbon emissions and will be catastrophic if those emissions are not reduced. Rubio has recently said he doesn’t think climate change is a problem.
“In the past he was a climate science supporter, and now he’s publicly a climate science denier,” Herrera said. “I didn’t feel comfortable calling him out on that in front of so many people, but I would love to understand the reason behind his change of views.”
Rubio isn’t the only Republican presidential candidate getting grilled about climate change and the environment on the campaign trail. At one of Carly Fiorina’s town hall events in Dubuque, Iowa, a young woman in red glasses stood up and asked what the former Hewlett-Packard CEO what she would do to help fix the problem. Fiorina, too, said she was opposed to EPA regulation.
Though it was unclear whether the woman was a Republican, Herrera thinks that presidential candidates will continue to face those kinds of questions from GOP Iowans.
“[Iowans] are so very intimately tied with the land, they’re recognizing that the climate is changing and that as a human race … we’ve been awful stewards of the land,” he said. “That should have changed years ago, but it didn’t. And we can’t change the past, so we need to act right now.”