Davidson College Republicans spark debate on climate change

Many right-leaning students more open to accepting what has been a liberal cause

Photo courtesy of Davidson College—
Students gather atDavidson College campus.

DAVIDSON — Davidson College has fewer than 2,000 students — small enough that the presidents of the College Republican and College Democrats clubs count each other as friends. They disagree on some political issues, but an unusual one unites them: they both believe climate change is a serious problem.”Climate change is really real and really alarming to me personally,” said Grace Woodward, the College Republicans’ president. University students — and Republicans in particular — “need to do a better job of talking about climate change,” she said.Woodward is well aware that her views differ from those of many older Republican leaders. “[But] we shouldn’t just be blindly loyal to a party,” she said. “In 20 years maybe we’ll hold those positions and we can make changes to the party.”In national party politics, beliefs about climate change often match party membership: Democrats believe it is a largely man-made problem and needs aggressive action, while a share of Republicans — including President Donald Trump — have questioned the very validity of the science.But a younger generation of Republicans — many on college campuses today — increasingly say they believe climate change is a problem that Americans have a responsibility to act on it, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation review of college Republican clubs across the United States.That shift appears to be the result of a range of differences in the Grand Old Party, differences that young conservative leadership in North Carolina see as a positive.”There is no doubt in my mind that our party and conservative ideals are growing stronger and more popular,” said Kyle Hall, a 26-year-old state representative from Stokes County. “Unlike the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is one that fosters free speech, open dialogue and respectful debate.”But the climate generation gap may also herald the start of a party-wide shift among Republicans with skepticism about the problem dissolving, young campus leaders say.”I think that there will be a big change in the [Republican] Party,” said Kent Haeffner, president of the Harvard University Republican Club, whose members are firm believers in man-made climate change. “Demographically, the ‘Trump coalition’ will not last. I think that the folks that are our age are going to have to reshape the party and take it in a different direction,” he said.And climate change is not the only issue in recent years that many college Republicans have broke rank on. Several chapters refused to endorse Donald Trump for president, including clubs at the liberal-leaning campuses of Cornell, Princeton and UNC Chapel Hill.According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, almost half of the 21 College Republican clubs they surveyed said their members believe climate change is predominantly human-caused. Another quarter said their members held a mix of opinions on the issue.On the Ohio State University campus, “you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thought that climate change is not occurring at all”, according to Nick Frankowski, chairman of the university’s College Republicans. But at other schools, college conservative groups include a more diverse variety of opinions on climate change.Colin Duffy, chairman of Duke’s College Republicans in Durham, for instance, said he hopes to foster that “big tent” feeling by leaving specific policy out of their platform. “In a broad sense, Duke College Republicans want to find the right balance between being environmentally responsible and economically friendly,” he said.Many of today’s college students have grown up more aware of environmental and sustainability issues.Woodward, of the Davidson College Republicans, said her generation’s easy access to information on climate impacts has shaped its understanding of the problem.”We’ve grown up in sort of a globalized world where we’ve seen the impacts that global warming has,” she said. “The people that are in power right now, for whatever reason, don’t have that same global view.”But critics say children today are not being exposed to the whole truth.”I think most of us realize that when it comes to certain issues, academia is anything but objective,” said state lawmaker Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan). “In many instances, there is an indoctrination taking place and unfortunately these kids are not getting both sides of the story.”Will Rierson, the current chairman of UNC College Republicans, reinforced that pressure exists.”Millennial-aged Republicans and those younger have grown up in a world of climate change fear,” he said. “We have witnessed a great deal of debate on this issue, and because we’re young and still in school, some of us may hold more critical views.”Haeffner, of Harvard University, said he believes it will eventually become politically unviable for Republicans to dismiss climate change. “Part of the word ‘conservative’ is to ‘conserve,'” he said. “To preserve the environment and natural resources that provide so much bounty and utility for our country. … I think that’s a conservative value.”Steinburg, a staunch conservative from Edenton, believes these students are doing themselves a disservice by blindly following what they’ve been taught at schools like Davidson. While Woodward, a student at the private school outside of Charlotte, predicts, “When our generation is in power, we will take climate change much more seriously.”Reuters News Service contributed to this story.