Young voters reject the idea that to grow the economy you have to damage the environment. This is not the coal age. This is three generations into the information economy. Environmental protection is fully compatible with economic growth. It’s expected – it’s assumed.

When forced to choose, young voters split about evenly, giving a slight edge to the environment. A March 2013 Gallup survey of American adults showed more 18 to 29 year-olds saying environmental protection should take priority (49%) than those saying economic growth should take priority (45%).

Yet in terms of urgency, the economy needs help right now. People need jobs to put food on the table today. They need the environment to live for the long term. So 45% want political leaders focused on the economy as their top priority, while only 8% want them focused first on climate change, according to CRNC.

Republican climate “skeptics” use that data to argue that young voters don’t care much about the environment. Yet a majority of young conservatives under age 35 – 30% of whom doubt climate change is real – still favor action on climate.

Here’s where young voters differ with the Democratic Party on the issue: they are “not all convinced that government action on issues like climate change and green energy would be positive overall.”

Nonetheless, if nothing else is on the table, they favor government action. About 80% of voters under age 35 support “President Obama’s climate change plan” – even though most have no idea what’s in that plan. But they favor action. If the GOP doesn’t offer an action plan, they won’t expend a lot of effort to figure out a better approach – they will take what’s on the table that the Democrats set.

Messages that assume the economy and environment are at odds are counterproductive, and damage the Republican brand. Focusing on the “job-killing EPA” may be valid, but also sends two wrong messages: first, that Republicans will sacrifice the environment to benefit a special interest group, and second that they hold the view that to grow the economy, they have to sacrifice the environment and benefit a special interest. This makes them look old and out of touch.

The failure of the GOP to offer a climate policy of its own makes a big government approach a self-fulfilling prophecy. GOP leaders rightly worry that a Democrat-led climate policy will lead to more regulations, higher costs, and higher taxes. Rather than offering no alternative, strategic Republicans could seize the high ground on the issue.

For example, former Secretary of State George Shultz has proposed a “Climate Insurance Policy” approach that emulates the GOP’s leadership on ozone protection during the Reagan administration. “There were ozone skeptics back then, just as there are climate skeptics now,” Shultz said. “But we all agreed that, if what some scientists feared were to happen, it would be disastrous. So we agreed to take out an insurance policy.” The Montreal Protocol quickly led to innovations that vastly reduced ozone depleting substances. “In retrospect, the non-skeptics turned out to be right, and the Montreal Protocol came around just in time.”

On climate, Shultz’s policy preference combines sound policy with deft strategy. It would lead to long-term tax and spending reductions, by shifting taxes from forms of prosperity that tend to go up (income, profits, savings, and payroll) to forms of pollution we seek to drive down (carbon and other pollutants). While the initial tax cut would be small, in the long term taxes would decline significantly.

Greg Mankiw, Arthur Laffer, Luigi Zingales and many other conservative economists have proposed a federal “carbon tax shift” that would cut taxes on income or payroll, and make up the difference with a price on carbon. Consumer product companies and retailers have noted that it puts more money in the pockets of “WalMart moms.” ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has endorsed the proposal as a rational approach to climate risk. Economically, the shift would increase jobs, income, technology and innovation – the things young voters desire. It would smooth the transition toward natural gas and away from coal, while delivering most of its tax benefits to coal states.

Carbon, unfortunately, has become an ideological litmus test on both the left and right. The hard left uses it to drive home the need for economy-wide regulation. The hard right resists it just as strenuously, to avoid such regulation. Republicans may be more successful if they support a pollution tax shift that covers a “market basket” of contaminants, rather than just carbon, as an alternative to onerous EPA carbon mandates. Pollution taxes are the one form of taxation that a plurality of GOP voters actually supports, according to polls by Hart Research.

Even if some GOP lawmakers remained skeptical, the party would seize the issue from Democrats, and regain its historical conservation leadership. “All of the most important federal environmental actions were taken by Republican presidents,” Shultz reminds us.

Nike didn’t demand that customers accept worker exploitation as a precondition for getting their shoes. They delivered the shoes first – but they promised, and their customers expected, that they would learn how to do it without hurting workers or the environment.

If the Republican Party can’t do the same on the economy, maybe it doesn’t need to be in business much longer. People can get their shoes elsewhere.