Conservative Republicans launch a new group to promote clean energy

A new conservative organization is being unveiled this morning to promote renewable energy and increased efficiency, issues that the Republican Party has de-emphasized as it pursues increased domestic fossil fuel production.

The group, Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, is led by Michele Combs, the former chairwoman of South Carolina Young Republicans and the daughter of Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America.

The new organization aims to wean the country from its oil dependency in order to increase national security and protect the environment. Its definition of energy reform promotes "a more prosperous, safe, secure, and healthy America, and a better future for our nation's families."

"We are a group of young professionals who are concerned about America's addiction to foreign oil and energy independence," Michele Combs said in a statement today. "Every American is concerned about our troops who are risking their lives to protect oil convoys in dangerous foreign lands. Every American is frustrated with gas price spikes. And every American wants clean air and water."

The group is unveiling itself during the hyper-political presidential campaign, in which Republican Mitt Romney rarely addresses renewable energy and increased efficiency. He promotes environmentalism even less.

That has led some Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), to encourage the GOP to speak more positively about clean energy sources, in part to retain younger voters. Polls show strong support for renewable energy, regardless of political party. They also point to a marginally stronger belief in man-made climate change among younger generations, compared to retirement-age Americans.

Young Conservatives for Energy Reform seeks to represent Generation X, one of the best science-educated generations to ever come of age in America. That demographic slice of the nation is composed of people in their 30s and 40s; they are reliable voters with rising incomes who stand to be the future of their party.

'Voice of the future'?

Religious voters form a clear cross section of conservatives, many of whom see it as a moral imperative to protect the Earth. The new group appears to be close to the idea of creation care, though a spokeswoman said it's not affiliated with the Christian Coalition, which expanded its platform in recent years to include environmentalism and clean energy.

Roberta Combs has teamed up with Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, to promote a "clean energy revolution" to protect the country from expensive power, foreign hostilities and pollution. Together, they endorsed Senate legislation in 2010 to cap carbon emissions.

"I think there's an appetite for this kind of organization," Schweiger said of the new group in an interview. "They know a lot about the conservative community, a lot about the church community, and certainly [they] have a keen interest in working with young people. I think it has a pretty good shot at getting traction."

Other conservatives have used the spotlight of the election year to endorse climate-related efforts that are out of fashion in Republican circles. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who served under Ronald Reagan, is pressing for a carbon tax. So is former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). And a variety of conservative economists say taxing carbon dioxide could be beneficial, financially and environmentally, if it results in lower income taxes.

But those viewpoints represent the outlier conservative community. That's one reason the Rev. Joel Hunter, who heads an evangelical congregation of 15,000 people near Orlando, Fla., declined to lead the Christian Coalition in 2006. The organization was then too strictly conservative on a number of issues, including on its positions around climate change, he said in an interview. He surrendered the presidency before formally ascending to the position. Three years later, in 2009, he left the Republican Party to become an independent.

Now he hopes the emergence of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform reflects a turning point for the conservative movement. Michele Combs calls it a "bold new direction for our nation."

"I'm really glad to see someone of that generation, from somebody of that place on the political spectrum, be able to speak up for this cause," Hunter said on Friday. "To me, it's hopefully not a white buffalo [or] a voice crying in the wilderness -- it's the voice of the future. Because I do think that the next generation, as they continue to voice their priorities, it will be very clear in their mind, in fact it already is for many of them, that [climate change] is something that has to be addressed as a national priority."

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