Over the past 10 years, Gavin Healy, a senior at the University of California–Berkeley, has seen his hometown in the Lake Tahoe area of Northern California—once a lush, green place—turn brown. A nearby lake is completely drained from a decades-long drought, and uneven water restrictions have created a patchwork landscape. Most summers, fires have brought with them destruction and dangerous air quality. Just last year, a wildfire forced Healy and his family to evacuate their home. Recalling one fire season in 2018, he said, “I remember the sky being completely black, and you can’t breathe, and I’d be walking home for three or four miles, just casually going, and I’d be like, ‘OK, like this is like the most ridiculous thing ever.’”
Now, Healy is one of millions of young people eligible to vote in the upcoming midterm elections (over 8 million of whom are newly eligible voters under 20 years old). As a young person directly affected by climate change, he’s not alone. In just this past summer, young people across the country—and the world—have faced record-breaking hurricanes and an intense and lengthy fire season.
The fall 2022 youth poll from the Harvard Public Opinion Project showed that “climate change is in the top tier of issues for young Americans heading into the midterms,” Alan Zhang, a junior at Harvard University and the chair of HPOP, points out. “If we’re looking at young liberals and young progressives [specifically], there’s really four issues tied for first place: There’s abortion, inflation, climate, and democracy.”
With the 2022 midterms just around the corner—and new data from the Harvard youth poll suggesting that young people are going to match record-breaking turnout levels from 2018—the question of whether Gen Z will turn to the polls as a solution to the climate crisis remains. The answer, however, is complicated.
“I think electoral politics are quite important,” said Kevin J. Patel, a 22-year-old climate activist and founder of the nonprofit One Up Action. In 2020 as now, Patel believes voter engagement efforts and high voter turnout are necessary priorities for climate organizations, activists, and concerned young people alike. “If we don’t have leaders who are acting on the climate crisis,” said Patel, “we will never see the bills, we will never see the policies, we will never see the solutions that we as young people want to get passed or even implemented within our communities.”
Sophia Kianni, a fellow climate activist and the founder of the multilingual climate education organization Climate Cardinals, agreed. Though elections and electoral politics are by no means the only solution, they remain “a viable avenue for making change happen.”
Like Healy, the Washington, D.C., resident has experienced worsening air quality almost comparable to that of her parents’ home country of Iran, where Kianni said she “witnessed the impacts of oil and gas pollution firsthand.” A focus on voting, then, she said, “is one of the best ways that we can champion individual action instead of telling people to focus on their personal carbon footprint, which is really ineffective and kind of playing into what the fossil fuel industry wants.”
Climate organizers across the country are responding to this need by adding voter engagement work to their own climate advocacy. Just last year, Patel dedicated himself to Georgia’s runoff elections, where getting out the vote was a priority. “We actually did, I think, over 5,000 phone banking calls…with all of our youth leaders, and that was about 30 or 40 youth leaders.”
He points to statistics from organizations like the Environmental Voter Project, which has found that millions of “environmentalists”—including hundreds of thousands of young people—failed to vote in the 2018 and 2020 elections. The Harvard youth poll, helmed by Zhang, has also found that, despite high turnout rates among Gen Z, there has also been “an increase in sentiments such as ‘politics today isn’t meeting the challenges of the moment,’ ‘politics today is too divided.’”
Kianni took a stance similar to Patel’s. “I do consider things like voter registration climate work, and I actually consider it to be one of the most crucial components of our climate work, because it’s one of the biggest ways that we can actually tangibly make an impact,” said Kianni. “I think most of the organizers and activists that I work with are doing a lot of election work.” And that election work happens across different spaces too, from social media to phone banks.
Others, like Natalia Brown, a recent college graduate and climate justice program manager at Catalyst Miami, engage in electoral work more indirectly. “We can’t advance climate justice without a healthy democracy.”
Catalyst focuses specifically on economic and racial justice in communities of color, which is why they also have a strong focus on climate justice. Climate change disproportionately affects low-wealth and working-class people in communities of color, said Brown. But these are also the same communities that “face barriers…that keep them from free and fair participation in elections,” such as rigid work schedules or ballot language barriers. That’s why Catalyst works in close partnership with organizations leading electoral work on the ground in Miami. At the core of it is an understanding that engaging and empowering voters leads to better leaders in office—leaders who would address climate and other crises.
Speaking specifically about her work in climate justice, Brown said that she focuses on government accountability year-round. “If we only focus on building pressure during elections, we miss out on the critical months in between where large corporations lobby for policy that facilitates extractive business practices—protecting outsize profits at the expense of everyday people’s lives and livelihoods.”
Many young people, Gavin Healy included, just aren’t convinced voting alone will be enough to avoid the existential crisis that is climate change. While Healy believes in the importance of voter engagement (he has worked on campaigns in the past), he also recognizes that “a social shift is needed.” The United States, he said, is too hyper-individualistic and shortsighted to be able to fix the problem of our time through institutional means alone. “Joe Biden will not get us out of this. Kamala Harris will not get us out of this. Donald Trump will really not get us out of this.”
To Healy, voting for pro–climate action Democrats is not nearly enough. “Americans [are] not really thinking how [the climate crisis] would look five or 10 years down the road, because capitalism forces you to think so narrowly,” said Healy. “If we just had these higher systems with power that were not focused on extraction and control and imposition of power,” then more meaningful action could be taken.
Ilana Cohen, a fellow organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, added further nuance. Though not involved in electoral organizing for the 2022 midterms, she sees voting as a crucial first step, but nothing more than that. “There is no question that voting is a duty for anyone who cares about climate change, the health of our democracy, furthering social justice, or protecting our most basic rights—these causes are fundamentally intertwined,” said Cohen. “It is also only a first step. Effective climate activism requires coming together around concerted strategies to move our politics in favor of a rapid just-energy transition every single day, including specifically by continuing to diminish the power of the fossil fuel companies working to undermine this transition.”
At the end of the day, though, progress on climate at the federal—and local—level since the 2020 elections has been slow and frustrating (when it has happened at all), key legislation like the Build Back Better act and the Inflation Reduction Act is progress nonetheless. And given the extremely polarized views on climate change that permeate US politics to the point that most Republicans are anti-climate, it is progress that remains at risk should Democrats lose their majorities. It is within this context of US politics that local elections, such as for municipal offices and state supreme court seats, provide more direct and incredibly important focal points around which to organize pro-climate voters.
“It would be really a shame for the momentum to be stalled and for any key wins to be undone,” Kianni said, referring to the meaningful, if limited, climate victories of the past year and a half and their instability in the American political system. “There’s just a lot that’s hanging in the balance in terms of different key climate policies and pieces of legislation that are going to be potentially passed.”