FEATURE (Salon): Meet the 20-year-old Republican with an environmental agenda

**As published at Salon.com

Benji Backer had just entered hostile territory. But the 20-year old conservative environmentalist walked through the University of California, Berkeley radiating such sunny confidence that he could have powered a solar panel. When Backer announced that he would be speaking at the school in April, Twitter denizens considered shutting down his talk. That wasn’t long after several conservative speakers were greeted in Berkeley by protesters — some armed with molotov cocktails.

If speaking loudly about his conservatism over coffee at the Free Speech Movement Cafe caused Backer any apprehension, he hid it well. Backer’s grin seemed tailor-made for a toothpaste commercial, and every strand on his blond head remained unruffled.

Backer is the founder of the American Conservation Coalition, a group of youngsters who aim to give conservatives an environmental vision to rally around. He runs it while attending college at the University of Washington. It’s a crucial moment for organizations like this: The Trumpian Republican party is in the messy stage of metamorphosis where the caterpillar turns to goo before reassembling. Many uncertain Republicans are looking to younger people to tell them what’s coming. Conservation is what’s coming, said Backer.