Earth to Obama

Young conservatives protest the administration’s green agenda.

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear Lenin
Happy birthday to you

It’s Earth Day, and young conservatives have found their own way to celebrate, toting signs, passing out literature, and, yes, singing outside the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington—all in the pouring rain. “The radical greens selected April 22 because that’s Lenin’s birthday,” explains R.J. Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute after the impromptu song.

Indeed, the radical greens have overtaken Washington this week. First they had their day-long celebration on the Mall Sunday, featuring the Flaming Lips. Then there’s the 54 witnesses testifying before the House energy and commerce committee on behalf of climate change legislation. Meanwhile, independent groups are flooding Capitol Hill and blanketing the airwaves. Not to mention free cone day at Ben & Jerry’s.

This particular group—a dozen or so young people organized by the Young Conservatives Coalition—isn’t exactly protesting Earth Day itself. Nor are they anti-environment: They consider themselves environmentalists, too, just without the Birkenstocks or hemp necklaces or good music. “I’ve been a bird-watcher and a nature nut my whole life,” says Smith. “Some of my best friends were hard-core greens.”

What they oppose is Obama’s environmental tool kit. Instead of regulation-based solutions like cap-and-trade or government-subsidized wind farms or public conservation, they support “market-based environmentalism.” If that sounds like an oxymoron, they say, think again.

The best solutions to environmental problems are private, says Smith, sporting a yellow raincoat. What’s the best way to preserve unspoiled nature? Ever since John James Audubon started buying up huge tracts of land at the turn of the 20th century, private sanctuaries have been superior to government parks, which get bloated by perverse incentives. Many public parks get funding based on attendance, Smith says, which pushes them to maximize user days. Meanwhile, he points out, attendance at the Audubon Society’s Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in coastal Louisiana is highly restricted.

Finding a private solution to climate change is trickier, which is why the conservative reaction to claims of global warming ranges from silence to skepticism, without many constructive alternatives. The goal of Wednesday’s protest seemed to be just that—to present market-based alternatives—but few materialized.

Critiques of government-sponsored environmentalism abound. The problem with government solutions, says Andrew Langer of the Institute for Liberty, who also spoke, is that they don’t honestly weigh the risks. When it comes to cap-and-trade, he says, the conversation currently focuses on the reduction of pollutants but doesn’t deal with the rise in energy costs. For example, if your heating bill is low, you might save enough money to buy a hybrid car. “Protecting the environment is important,” he says. “But you have to do it smartly.”

Then there’s simple overreach, Langer says. Take carbon dioxide regulation. Once you start capping CO2 emissions, a bunch of unexpected emitters would suddenly fall under the regulatory umbrella. “They would treat a power plant and a pizza place the same,” he says.

Unfortunately, saying no to cap-and-trade and CO2 regulation does not a market-based solution make. Maybe the energy sector needs its own John James Audubon—T. Boone Pickens is certainly in the running. But it’s unclear that enough Audubons would emerge to solve the problem.

That, of course, assumes that the problem exists. The conservatives in attendance don’t seem convinced. “We think it’s not a foregone conclusion,” said Sarah Smith, an organizer. “The science is not all there.” The first speaker, Chris Horner, authored a book called Red Hot Lies: How Global Warming Alarmists Use Threats, Fraud, and Deception To Keep You Misinformed. One of the handwritten signs read, “Sorry For Breathing.”

Rebranding is a major part of their goal, too. “We need to attack the idea that conservatives hate the environment,” says Richard Lim, a student and member of the YCC steering committee.

Nor is it just the Democrats they’re protesting. “The Republican Party thinks it’s taboo to talk about the climate,” says YCC President Christopher Malagisi. During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain had nearly identical environmental policies, give or take a drill. The resulting conversation is a “one-sided debate.”

Wooing young people seems to be the hardest part. To that end, the organizers bought 15 pizzas and loaded them into the back of an SUV. “We also have complimentary granola bars,” says Sarah Smith. “We know you like granola.” Unfortunately, there are only a dozen people there. (Organizers said 100 had RSVPed, but few showed because of the rain.)

As 1 p.m. approaches, the party breaks up. Organizers look around for cops to give the extra pizza to. “By the way,” said Malagisi, pointing to the pizza boxes, “we’re recycling all of this.”