“While I am not a lawyer nor a climate scientist, and I only recently came of voting age,” Aji Piper said with quiet poise as he leaned in to the microphone to address the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis last April, “I know from studying climate science and living with the consequences of climate change today that my health, my community, and my future—and that of my generation—is at stake.” Four years ago, at the age of 15, Piper joined a group of plaintiffs in a still ongoing lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, that argues that the federal government has violated his generation’s constitutional rights by failing to do anything meaningful to reduce the threat of climate change. At the time the lawsuit was filed, Piper and most of his peers weren’t yet old enough to cast ballots. The only way they could directly influence national politics was via the courts.
But Piper became eligible to vote last year, one of about 24 million members of Generation Z who will be able to cast a ballot for a presidential candidate in 2020. In that election, younger generations’ political influence could be significant: Millennials and Gen Z will be the country’s largest voting segment by age. Could their participation finally provide some impetus for politicians to pay attention to climate change?
For at least a couple decades, climate change activists have tried to mobilize youth—with the idea that the youngest will see the worst impacts, are the least to blame for the problem, and can thus make a persuasive case about injustice and urgency. And young people have been at the forefront of some of the most prominent grassroots organizations tackling the issue, including SustainUS, Avaaz, and 350.org (founded a little over a decade ago by some college friends with author Bill McKibben). Sustained pressure from these and other groups pushed the Democratic National Committee to vote on hosting a presidential debate focused exclusively on climate change; DNC membership yesterday rejected the proposal.
But pollsters and public opinion researchers couldn’t detect evidence that younger demographics on average were more fired up about climate change as a political issue than their elders—until just now. A recent report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which tracks public opinion on this issue, has some important findings about the views of younger voters. In an analysis of five in-depth surveys conducted between 2017 and 2019, the researchers discovered that young people are now significantly more concerned about climate change than their elders.
The biggest generation gaps show up on the right side of the political spectrum: 42 percent of millennial Republicans recognize that climate change is caused by humans, while only 30 percent of conservative boomers do. “Given the role that the Republican Party has taken over the past 10 years to predominantly be the party of obstruction…they’ve got a real challenge on their hands from a generational perspective,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication. Some voices on the right are also concerned. Republican political strategist Frank Luntz infamously encouraged Republicans to cast doubt on climate science during the George W. Bush administration, but a new memo released this June from his market research firm, Luntz Global Partners, reports that 58 percent of GOP voters under 40 “are more concerned about climate change than they were only one year ago.” During a series of listening sessions with voters, the firm’s researchers “heard real anger that [Republican] leadership has ‘ceded the issue to the Dems [emphasis in original].’” On Twitter, Jason Emert, former chair of the Young Republican National Federation, concurred, writing, “@GOP risk losing a generation,” and the group has said it supports “free market solutions” on climate change.
In Yale’s study, across the political spectrum, young voters ranked climate change among the top 10 issues that would influence their decisions in the 2020 election. Furthermore, 37 percent of millennials said they would be willing to contact politicians about climate change, compared with 30 percent of baby boomers, and 38 percent said they’d consider volunteering for a group focused on the issue, compared with a little over a quarter of boomers. This is a substantial shift from surveys done in years past, when younger generations were, on some measures, even less concerned about climate change and more likely to shrug off its impacts than their elders.
However, few of the people who are most alarmed about climate change (now about 70 million American adults, young and old) actually do something about it. Leiserowitz says that according to his group’s research, the main obstacle is so obvious as to be absurd: “Nobody’s ever asked [them] to join such a movement. It’s that stupid.” Too often, it’s been easier for environmental organizations to ask for money than for a tangible commitment. It’s a missed opportunity, and “frankly a little bit of an indictment,” he says. But younger grassroots groups are opening the door to a different kind of involvement—bolder, more direct, often more confrontational. This past May, a group of New York City schoolchildren joined a global climate change strike involving 130 countries: They walked out of school, rallied in a traffic circle in Manhattan, and marched to Times Square. A coalition of groups around the world are planning a larger strike in mid-September—not just in schools but in workplaces.
In the face of all of this, it is strange that the Democratic National Committee has rejected a debate dedicated to climate change. In a Yale survey this past spring, the party’s base, liberal Democrats, ranked the issue of climate change as their third-highest priority (with environmental protection second). And, in a CNN poll from April this year, the issue was the top priority for Democrats and even left-leaning independents: 96 percent said it was very or somewhat important for their candidates to take “aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change.” Yet politicians and some members of the media don’t seem to have caught on. The first two Democratic debates for presidential candidates devoted 15 minutes in total to the subject of climate change, out of four hours. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat suggested the subject just wasn’t “ready for prime time” and “hasn’t yet found its footing with the public,” given that some actions on climate change have stalled in blue states like Oregon, which recently failed to pass an initiative that would have put caps on carbon emissions. (Never mind that California and 10 Northeastern states have carbon pricing policies already in place.)
However, activists have insisted that the issue belongs in the spotlight. This summer, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has been protesting at Democratic National Committee offices around the country—to push the party to take the issue more seriously. In June, they held a sit-in on the steps of the DNC national headquarters. In late July, thousands of activists rallied outside Detroit’s Fox Theatre, where another round of debates was held. Inside, the issue of climate change received 21 minutes of airtime, according to InsideClimate News. Meanwhile, MSNBC and CNN have recently agreed to organize town-hall events focused on climate change, though neither is an official party-sponsored debate.
In an election campaign, politicians have an opportunity to speak to the public directly, inform it, and influence its feelings and ideas. Some Democratic presidential candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Senator Cory Booker, have been touting their climate platforms. But so far the DNC itself has dropped the ball, and the GOP has stopped playing the game altogether. As we enter another hurricane and wildfire season, the public will surely become more, not less, worried about climate change. The evidence from public opinion research now suggests that if the party fails to listen, it will be at its own peril.