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How to Woo Environmentally-Friendly Millennials

  • Terry Anderson

  • Selfie in Yosemite. Photo courtesy of G. Scott Heath.

    Originally appeared in the Daily Caller on March 13, 2015.

    If the Republican Party wishes to take the White House in 2016, it will not just need to win the minds of Gen X and Gen Y. Younger voters swept Obama into the White House searching for “hope and change.” Despite the promise of fewer top-down regulations, revelations of NSA spying on ordinary Americans and the passage of Obamacare hardly suggest that big brother’s shadow is smaller.

    Writing in the New York Times, Robert Draper noted that Millennials were “raised on the ad hoc communalism of the Internet, disenchanted by the Iraq War, reflexively tolerant of other lifestyles, appalled by government intrusion into their private affairs and increasingly convinced that the Obama economy is rigged against them.”

    The 2016 presidential campaign gives Republicans a chance to speak to Millennials, and the Republican environmental policy message could be a starting point. Command-and-control regulations — Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to mention a few — from Nixon-era Republicans may have played to Boomers, but Millennials want results, not regulations.

    The younger generations do care about the environment — over 80 percent are concerned about global warming and resource scarcity — but they want environmental bang for their buck. For example, a Michigan State University survey found that “Gen Y does have concern for the environment when making purchases, but without an economic benefit in making eco-friendly choices, they would likely not make these purchases.”

    The same applies to government regulations. There were clear benefits from picking the low hanging fruit by cleaning up Ohio’s burning Cuyahoga River or saving the bald eagle from poisoning, but today’s environmental regulations add cost without benefit. The American Action Forum, for example, reported in 2013 that federal environmental regulations imposed an estimated $216 billion in regulatory costs on the economy in 2012, nearly double its previous record. Those regulations imposed 87 million hours of paperwork on the economy, amounting to a year’s work for some 43,000 full-time employees.

    The parade to Iowa of Republican presidential hopefuls courting the farm vote shows some indications of change. Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie, and Scott Walker marched in step with Mike Huckabee who said they had “better suck up to” the farmers by supporting subsidies and federal fuel mandates requiring ethanol in gasoline. Such policies continue despite the fact that ethanol is not an alternative energy source which will reduce global warming, that it has destroyed thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, that it wastes water, and that it costs taxpayers billions. The good news is that three of the candidates, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry, acknowledged that Washington is not good at picking winners and that energy policy should be left to the marketplace.

    Republicans could get some fresh ideas from the Breakthrough Institute, located in Berkeley, still home for unretreadable Boomers. The Institute’s mission is “to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.” It opposes a carbon tax and renewable energy subsidies as ways of reducing global warming, instead favoring more reliance on shale gas and nuclear energy.

    In their book, Millennial Momentum, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais describe millennials as the “North Star for an entire new generation of entrepreneurs.” That entrepreneurship can and does extend far beyond energy policy to all aspects of the environment.

    Here are some concrete examples of what the next generation of environmental entrepreneurs are already doing. Despite decades of federal and state fishing regulations, ocean fish stocks continued to decline until a form of property rights — individual transferable fishing quotas — were introduced. These fishing rights have improved both the environment and fishing economies. For example, in order to stop destruction of the ocean floor ecosystem caused by trawl fishing near Morro Bay, California, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) simply purchased commercial fishing permits and is leasing them back with contractual limits on where and when fishing occurs. TNC says the “partnership preserves livelihoods and fish stocks.”

    In California’s Central Valley where there are bitter fights over whether water should be delivered to farmers or used to protect fish and wildlife, tech-savvy bird lovers use the smartphone app, eBird, to record shorebird sightings. With these data, TNC uses private donations to pay farmers to flood wetlands when and where the birds need it. In 2014, BirdReturns, as the program is called, overcame bureaucratic redtape on buying water for environmental purposes to create over 10,000 acres of “pop up” wetlands with water from 40 farmers. Millennial environmental policy: reduce the barriers to leasing water from farmers who have contracts for water delivery from federal irrigation projects.

    A 2014 poll showed that half of the voters between ages 18 and 29 are unwedded to either party. Environmental policies based on markets, incentives, and entrepreneurship offer Republicans a chance to win over Millennials.

    Conserve, the root of both conservative and conservation, means “to watch over or protect.” To win the younger vote, conservatives in Washington will have to stop protecting status quo subsidies and regulations and start promoting policies favoring environmental entrepreneurship.

    Written By
    • Terry Anderson

      Terry L. Anderson is the former president and executive director of PERC, and the John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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