Voting for the Environment
Human-driven global warming has long been a divisive issue in the U.S., thanks in part to decades of polarizing messaging from industry, political figures and others. As the world experiences extreme heat and other climate change-driven events with increasing frequency, people’s views on what’s happening still vary widely, but they are changing.
The political class is not rising to the challenge of our climate crisis with the urgency necessary to avoid disaster. So how do we the people motivate them? Not by focusing on Democrat vs. Republican, or Blue vs. Red, or liberal vs. conservative. Let’s focus instead on people across the spectrum who are already motivated.
It’s been my experience that most people don’t “wake up” to what’s happening with climate until they are impacted personally by it. As the frequency and severity of climate-related weather disasters keeps increasing, more and more people are understanding the need to make changes in how we live, to move to an economy powered by renewables, to invest in the infrastructure adaptations required for a hotter, stormier and higher sea level world.
This is a concept that is core to the mission of the Environmental Voter Project (EVP). The EVP estimates that over 8 million environmentalists did not vote in the 2020 presidential election and over 13 million skipped the 2022 midterms. EVP is a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on a simple, high-leverage solution to this problem: it is identifying these non-voting environmentalists and converting them into a critical mass of consistent voters that will soon be too big for politicians to ignore.
“Although the climate crisis is the most important issue facing humanity, it’s not yet the most important voting issue when people cast ballots on Election Day,” said Nathaniel Stinnett, founder of the Environmental Voter Project. “Still, things are changing, and the data is pretty clear that climate voters are becoming a more powerful electoral bloc.”
Because climate change has risen in political prominence, organizers and groups like the Environmental Voter Project are highlighting the growing power of climate-conscious voters.
EVP states that it mobilized hundreds of thousands of voters in 2022 in states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania. The Environmental Voter Project’s goal is to increase voter turnout generally – not influence the political sway of a voter.
“We think that if we can dramatically increase the number of these people who vote not just in federal elections, but in state and local elections, that will start changing policy,” Stinnett predicted.
Climate used to be a fringe political issue. Not anymore. After this summer of worldwide severe weather events and record breaking temperatures, voters in the US overwhelmingly prefer candidates who have plans to address our climate crisis. This is even more pronounced with young voters.
The Kids Get It
If you are paying attention, you’ve seen the many protests led by youth concerning everything from gun control to free and fair elections and, especially, our climate crisis. Today’s youth will have to deal with an unraveling climate for the rest of their lives. They know the quality of their lives depends in large part on how much action is taken to mitigate and adapt to our climate crisis… and that time is running out.
Polling shows that young voters across party lines list climate as a top issue. The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found nearly 60% of those ages 18 to 29 believe climate change should be a priority, even at the risk of slowing economic growth. A larger group, 64%, believe climate change is a major threat, and 72% responded that climate change is affecting their local community.
“For young Americans across the political spectrum, it’s pretty much a given that climate change is happening and that it warrants action,” said Danielle Butcher Franz, CEO of the American Conservation Coalition, an organization mobilizing conservatives to take action in addressing climate change. “Candidates that are dismissing that outright are alienating that base.”
“People see that climate change is already a threat and will continue to be a growing threat in the future, and they support changes to keep people safe and prepared, especially on the local level,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, chief meteorologist at Climate Central, an independent research and communication organization.
Democrats, Independents and Even Some Republicans Get It
A recent Economist/YouGov poll asked Independent voters to rank the importance of various issues. #1 was Inflation, #2 was Healthcare, and #3 was Climate! Abortion came in at #7. Independent voters comprise 49% of the electorate.
Graphic by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour
Over the last decade, climate change has emerged as a top political issue, particularly for younger voters. But polls routinely show climate change lags behind other items, like traditional pocketbook economic issues, that can motivate voters.
For example, in 2018, a separate environmental advocacy group, the Environment America Action Fund, picked 10 close races where they believed environmental voters could make a difference in the outcome. Eight of those 10 won their races.
With rising costs for necessities like rent and groceries amid years of sustained inflation, people’s everyday lives may be more directly affected by economic realities today than they were five or six years ago.
But climate change and the economy aren’t opposing issues – they are intertwined. Edward Maibach, who directs the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, said that his organization’s polling data suggests that most people don’t view climate action and economic growth as a binary.
The consequences of a warming planet (including increasingly frequent, costly events like floods and wildfires) are associated with major fiscal damage. Shifting toward a circular / regenerative economy will deliver massive career opportunities in new industries.
As a crew member on Spaceship Earth, do not sit this out. Find authentic climate activists who are running and support them. Do the grassroots support activities that worked so well for abortion advocates in this last election: call and write your representatives. Knock on doors. Do phone banks. Speak to friends, family and acquaintances regarding how important upcoming elections are to their children and grandchildren.
As it stands now, climate is one of many issues that divides us. It can and should be the issue that unites us. We are all in this together.