Climate protests have been in an arms race in recent years, and now they’ve turned deadly. Peaceful protests have slowly become more destructive and disruptive, often destroying property and blocking emergency vehicles and commuters to work in order to make their points. Last week, an angry motorist killed two protestors for blocking traffic, marking a terrifying escalation in an otherwise fairly calm advocacy area. Conservatives have an opportunity to stop the vicious cycle of destruction and violence by being the adults in the room and approaching the challenge of climate change with ambition and optimism.
Kenneth Darlington, a retired American lawyer and professor living in Panama, was caught in a traffic jam. Climate activists, protesting the Panama government’s recent decision to re-commission a copper mine, had the road blockaded with a makeshift barricade of sticks, stones, and tires. Despite being on live television, Darlington opened fire on the protestors, killing two. He was arrested shortly thereafter. According to a Panama television outlet present, Darlington had declared “This ends here.” before leaving his vehicle and brutally murdering the protestors in broad daylight.
This climate clash is only the latest episode in a decades-long escalation. Leftist activists have been steadily getting more and more outlandish with publicity stunts thinly veiled as political engagement for years. Throwing paint on art, gluing themselves to highways and cementing themselves to airport tarmacs, taking hammers and paint to art and buildings, and stopping a breast cancer charity event apparently all qualify as policy advocacy in a generation obsessed with TikTok soundbites and Instagram photos with catchy protest signs. Still, while it’s easy to dismiss people who don’t know it’s painful to get your hands un-epoxied from roadways, the distress that leftist narratives are creating in young people is nothing to laugh at.
Progressive organizations thrive on fostering existential anxiety in younger generations, and leftist climate organizations are no exception. Their names attest to the fear of the ecological end times, with movements calling themselves things like “Extinction Rebellion” and “Last Generation.” While this may be empty political theater for some, especially the leaders of these organizations, for the average climate protester, climate dread is anything but a joke. Climate anxiety is getting out of control, especially with younger generations, and has even led to suicides. Simply put, the kids aren’t alright, and they need to know that incremental, non-extreme measures are possible.
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Conservative solutions and narratives are a crucial foil to a movement that’s creating a distressed and desperate base of support. It’s not that conservatives have no climate solutions, it’s that they fear identifying with them. The tragedy of conservative environmentalism is that it has ceded an entire policy area to the left. Rather than bringing climate solutions to the table, conservatives have largely walked away, leaving the left unchecked and radically snowballing out of control. Older generations on the right are hesitant to address environmental issues with a voter base that has historically opted to ignore climate change, but this strategy isn’t actually fixing anything; it’s just leaving the inmates to run the asylum.
If the first greatest political land grab from the left has been seizing environmental policy as an exclusively liberal issue, the second has been to convince voters and politicians alike that environmental policy and climate change policy are one and the same. While climate change may still be a tricky topic for certain constituencies, environmentalism has too long of a history in the conservative movement to be so quickly abandoned by its contemporaries. Never mind leaving votes on the table: increasingly conservative voters, especially young conservatives, want to see at least some acknowledgment of environmental issues from their representatives.
The best news of all is that conservative politicians need not even change their existing legislative priorities in many cases. Most are already focused to some degree on issue areas like energy security, sustainable agriculture, and are increasingly bullish on nuclear energy, all areas that would serve to counterbalance the left’s monopoly on climate issues without compromising their principles and priorities.
The murders in Panama are a shot heard around the world that the American right can’t ignore. It’s not only politically expedient but also morally correct for conservatives to lead on climate issues rather than leaving it to the left to set the terms of environmental policies. Without clear leadership, the face of the right turns into rogue reactionaries like Darlington who take things into their own hands. Conservatives can come to the table without coming to the middle, and it’s high time they do.
Alina Clough is the President of American Conservation Coalition’s D.C., Maryland, and Virginia Young Professional Branch.