The 'green conservative' movement: Big players and their uphill battle

If you follow American politics, you'll probably find these words surprising. Conservatives typically reserve the word “radical” for use alongside “environmentalist," and “conservation” is more often a code word for “tyrannical big government."

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Yet those words were spoken by Debbie Dooley, the founder of the Georgia-based Green Tea Coalitionand national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. She delivered them at a conference billed as a "fresh conservative take on clean energy” — in the staunch oil country of Texas.

Carl Lindemann, who writes for the Texas Observer, explains it this way: “Clean energy conservatives are looking to break some Republican taboos for the cause of free markets and national security.”

As Dooley points out to fellow small-government supporters, "coal and nuclear have received billions of dollars in subsidies. But unfortunately, you don't hear conservatives talk about that. They just point to the renewables.”

The Green Tea Coalition has brought together an unlikely assortment of groups from the Sierra Club to Georgia Right to Life. Former six-term Congressman Bob Inglis, a Republican from South Carolina, also attended the Texas conference. Inglis lost his 2010 primary to a Tea Party challenger; now he directs theEnergy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University.

Inglis says the message green conservatives need to drive home is that a truly free market is not just about cutting cash subsidies. “Maybe the biggest subsidy of them all is being able to belch and burn in the trash dump of the sky without paying any tipping fee,” he says. “That's a hard message, because: ‘What? What are you talking about? There's not a trash dump in the sky!’ Oh no, there is — and we don't charge for emissions.”

The coalition’s stand in favor of solar power — and, on the security front, a decentralized power grid that's less vulnerable to terrorist attack — has pitted them against some powerful forces. That includes Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party-aligned group funded by the Koch brothers, the powerful conservative mega-donors.

Dooley contends the Koch brothers have lost sight of core conservative values because of their fossil fuel interests. She says the key to beating such well-funded adversaries is effectively communicating the pro-free market and national security messages of green conservatism.

“When our public-service commissioners were attacked for wanting Georgia Power to add more solar, they were attacked by Americans for Prosperity,” Dooley says. “I sent out an email and I had their back. And I educated conservatives on the conservative message as far as decentralized energy and solar, and we won that!”

A pro-solar Tea Party would mark a seismic shift in American politics, says Lindemann, the Texas Observer writer. And Kip Averitt, a former Texas Republican state Senator who now heads the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, says it should be possible. He points to Texas' tremendous success with wind and solar power as the perfect example.

But there's work to be done. “You've got to set our conservatives free,” Averitt says. “You have to tell them it's OK for them to do the right thing ... We have a whole boatload of [Texas Republicans] who want to do the right thing, but they have to tiptoe around it. They get timid, and they get scared because they're, quite frankly, afraid of the Tea Party.”

It shows: The "fresh conservative take on clean energy" conference in Austin didn't draw much of a crowd. But that could make the gathering all the more memorable, according to Tucker Eskew. Eskew is a top Republican strategist, and no stranger to difficult challenges: He was tasked with tutoring Sarah Palin on being a vice-presidential candidate in 2008.

Eskew says being a clean energy conservative may be coming into style. “Do you remember the saying, ‘I was country before country was cool’?” he says. “Some Republicans picked that up before long, and they were conservative before conservative was cool. Maybe one day we'll all look back on this event and realize we were clean energy conservatives before it was cool.”


This story is adapted from a report by Carl Lindemann that appeared on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

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