“As time moves on every single moment becomes more and more of a critical point for climate action,” said Iris Zhan, an 18-year-old from Maryland who is voting for the first time this November and considers climate a top priority. “That’s where the politics and the legislation need to be to make a difference.”
In 2020, the most recent presidential election-year, 53 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds cast a ballot, a nine percentage point jump from 2016.
At that time, youth-led environmental organizations such as the Sunrise Movement mobilized millions of people to vote in record numbers, with organizers as young as 12 and 13 making countless phone calls to talk to community members about what’s at stake and registering eligible peers to vote.
Now, in 2022, Ezra Oliff-Lieberman, who leads Sunrise’s electoral organizing arm, said that young people are still feeling that fire.
- “I feel a lot of hope. Hope, hopefully, that things will pay off and we’ll be able to win some things in the next couple of weeks,” he said. “But more importantly, hope that in the long-term young people will continue to fight and put power in our communities.”
The midterm elections on Nov. 8 are set to determine if young climate activists will be able to continue to throw their political weight around at a time when control of Congress is up for grabs and a majority of the top youth issues are on the ballot, including climate change, abortion, gun control and LGBTQ rights.
“If we think about what’s coming with the climate movement, when we see, you know, the young people who are protesting, who are getting trained in civil disobedience … that’s happening as the planet warms up and we experience substantial climate shocks,” said Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies protest movements. “So I think what we’re going to see is that come together to push for social change.”
Not just liberal young voters
Benji Backer, president of the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative climate advocacy group geared toward young people, said he is also seeing a lot of energy and momentum around the midterms this year, especially among young Republicans, adding that although Democrats have largely taken the lead on pro-environment policy, climate change’s wrath doesn’t care about political parties
Backer said that as the generations shift, the question for political campaigns will no longer be whether they accept the science that the world is warming but rather a question of what is the best solution to address the rapidly changing climate.
- “If you deny climate change, and, or if you don’t have a plan for climate change … you won’t have an opportunity to win young voters,” he said. “Those sorts of candidates will never win again at the level that they have in the past.”
Fisher agreed, saying that as they grow older, and become eligible both to vote and to run their own campaigns, Gen Z has the potential to change part of the political landscape.
“The people who are in office, when they run for reelection, they’re either going to have to change their opinions to reflect more of the voters or they’re going to get voted out,” she said.
Despite widespread care for the environment, climate activists say it’s hard to get young people to vote when they’ve already faced so much disappointment on other issues this year.
“Gen Z overall really pushes for gun safety, climate change, the right to choose. And, that’s all kind of backfired,” said Kate Fraser, a 17-year-old from Florida who is not old enough to vote during this election cycle but has been working to register hundreds of her peers to vote on a climate platform.
“I think it could absolutely be big if we actually get people registered, and we actually get people to the polls,” she said.
- Oliff-Lieberman said one challenge to mobilization is that “young people feel disillusioned and they feel like their politicians are not fighting for them at the scale that these crises demand.”
Others, like Cam Fowler, an 18-year-old first time voter from North Carolina, said that being an environmentalist and being aware of so many weather disasters has led to climate anxiety, which for some means a sense of doom or of not being able to take action, that could turn people away from activism.
But now, he said, “I think that voting and the opportunity to vote is going to be really important to my generation because it’s finally a way for us to feel like okay, we can do something, even though we are young.”
Not a ‘kid’ issue
Meanwhile, Fraser criticized the notion that climate is an issue that is only taken seriously by youth.
“Older politicians view it as something that the young people will deal with,” she said. “But they don’t realize that they are the people who actually need to make the changes now, to prevent what could happen in the future.”
Alexia Leclercq, a 22-year-old from Austin who is voting for the first time after receiving citizenship this year, said one of the biggest issues facing her generation is the limited time to take action.
“All of these social justice and environmental justice issues are tied,” she said, adding that “taking any action while we still have the time and advancing ambitious goals and passing legislation to support ambitious climate goals” is the most at stake.
Hope for the future
Even as the planet warms and youth climate activists face barriers to being taken seriously or achieving change, Alison Gill, a 22-year-old studying molecular engineering at the University of Chicago, said she still has a lot of optimism for the future.
- “The positive spin is that our need to take climate action also creates an opportunity for us to remake infrastructure in a greener and a more equitable way,” she said.
For Zhan, the 18-year-old from Maryland, there’s a lot riding on this moment. But, they said it’s the small successes that sometimes matters the most, and that those wins are what keeps them going.
“A lot of times I’m like oh God, we’re gonna put so much energy to organize something and it’s not gonna do anything,” Zhan said. “But then it does do something. And I’m like okay, activism works. Activism works!”