Thank young people for the Inflation Reduction Act
When I first left my investing career to dedicate my life to fighting the climate crisis, the reaction from my peers ranged from “that’s a 2050 problem” to “there’s no climate crisis” to “you know solar is never going to be cheap enough, right?” While more than half of S&P 500 companies now voluntarily disclose climate risks in their annual reports, in 2012, most public and private sector leaders treated climate as an issue for hippy tree-huggers, not investors and business leaders. But young people knew better. Despite being relegated to the kids’ table, young people kept showing up and demanding action. It was this resilience and persistence that delivered the Democrats the House in 2018, and the White House and Senate in 2020. Young people did that. By voting in record numbers and staying in the fight when it was unpopular and hard, young people demonstrated an inspiring combination of grit and hope to deliver the historic Inflation Reduction Act.
A decade ago, a package of this size and nature was unimaginable. In 2009, Democrats and Republicans killed the Waxman-Markey bill together, completely underestimating the impact that inaction would have on our climate, economy and population.
One of the underappreciated but fundamental differences between the electorate of 2009 and today, is the uptick in engagement, passion and dedication of young voters.
I’ve seen this transformation up close. In 2013, I founded what is now the nation’s largest youth voting organization, NextGen, because I saw climate as an existential threat to our society and our planet. I believed we could find the solutions to our problems in broader democracy, broader participation and more power to the people. Young people were growing as a percent of the population, but they were voting at half the rates of other age groups. This led to their perspective on key issues, like climate, being underrepresented in the Democratic Party. Registering over 1.4 million young voters between 2014 and 2020, NextGen has served as a vehicle to empower and give voice to a new generation of leaders.
During the Democratic presidential primary season in 2015, NextGen launched the “50 by 30” campaign urging candidates to embrace the goal of powering America with more than 50 percent clean and carbon-free energy by 2030. Just seven years ago, this effort was met with pushback from inside the Democratic establishment, described as too bold and going too far. By 2020, the Biden-Harris campaign included a target of 100 percent clean energy by 2035. The party had caught up.
Going into the 2016 election, like many, we felt confident that year would produce the required majorities to pass bold climate legislation and meet the moment. But we all know how that story went. Rather than passing legislation to reduce our emissions and accelerate our clean energy transition, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement andelevated the interests of the fossil fuel industry.This retreat not only pulled us off course in our transition to a clean energy economy but seriously reduced our climate leadership on the global stage.
But these setbacks did not deter young people. They continued to organize, march and strike all in the name of climate. Youth voter turnout jumped from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018 — a 79 percent jump, the largest percentage point increase for any age group. Young people won back the House and in doing so, sent a record number of women to the House of Representatives and increased the number of millennials represented in Congress, solidifying a pro-climate majority.
To focus on the past 18 months of negotiations is to miss the forest for the trees. The Inflation Reduction Act is the culmination of a decade of advocacy and persistence. In 2020, 50 percent of young people voted and made the difference in critical Senate races in Michigan, New Hampshire, Virginia, Arizona and twice in Georgia. Young people broke for President Biden by a nearly two-to-one margin, delivering the margin of victory in key red to blue flips like Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Their turnout is the reason Biden is signing the largest climate investment in our nation’s history into law Tuesday.
And of course, voting in 2020 was not the end of the road. Since the Democrats took control of all both chambers of Congress as well as the White House, young people have been protesting and pushing for this legislation. From the Sunrise Movement to NextGen America to congressional staffers conducting a sit-in in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) office, young people kept the pressure on — even when the legislation seemed dead. Young people are not just the future of the Democratic Party — they’re here now and ready to lead us to more than we can imagine.
To young people: Thank you for your heart and persistence. Without you, we would not have the Inflation Reduction Act. Without you, Biden would not be in the Oval Office. Without you, we would have lost our ability to meet our climate ambitions. Thank you for focusing on the future and fighting for all of us.
Tom Steyer is a former Democratic presidential candidate, the founder of NextGen America, and the co-executive chair of Galvanize Climate Solutions.