Energy & Environment

Young voters and voters of color are key to climate policy

The West Coast is on fire, the Northeast is flooding, drought is hitting the Midwest, and record-breaking heat waves are sweeping the nation. While we endure another summer of (un)natural disasters, we are also counting down to the midterm elections. How can we elect politicians who will to act boldly to halt climate change? Who are the key environmental voters who will demand stronger environmental policies?

From crises in Puerto Rico and Flint, to movements from Standing Rock to This Is Zero Hour, it's people of color and young people (and young people of color) who are leading the environmental movement and strongly supporting environmental policies. As Nathaniel Stinnett of Environmental Voter Project put it, "the environmental voters who could decide the 2018 midterms are just as likely to be Latina grandmothers as white college students."

Overall, Latino, black and Asian registered voters are significantly more likely than whites to prioritize the environment. When it comes to climate change, the polling data is striking: 70 percent of Latinos and 56 percent of blacks believe the earth is getting warmer because of human activity, compared to 44 percent of whites. Additionally, 54 percent of people of color think addressing global warming should be a top priority for the government, compared to 22 percent of whites - a gap that has widened by 10 percent over the last decade as fewer whites consider it a priority.

In Florida, where black folks make up nearly 14 percent of the electorate, they are 18 percent more likely than whites to list climate/environment as a top priority.

In Nevada, where Latinos comprise almost 20 percent of the electorate, they are 10 percent more likely than whites to prioritize environmental protection. And it's personal: 67 percent of Latinos, compared to 50 percent of whites, said their lives would be personally impacted if nothing was done to reduce global warming.

Additionally, an impressive majority of millennials support environmental protection. Millennial registered voters are twice as likely as older voters to care deeply about the environment. For example, 67 percent of millennials think protecting the environment should be a top priority for the federal government, 19 percent higher than for those over the age of 65. Also, 60 percent of millennials (more than any other age group) disapprove of the Trump administration's environmental policies, and 78 percent want their congressional representatives to fight harder for the environment in their communities.

When it comes to climate change, 88 percent of millennials understand climate change is happening, and 69 percent believe it will impact them in their lifetimes. Additionally, 65 percent of millennials say there is solid evidence climate change is the result of human activity - for no other generation is this a majority perspective. Millennials are the generation most supportive of expanding wind farms, least supportive of expanding fossil fuel extraction, and most concerned about the lack of protection of animals, habitats, water quality, and parks.

All these polling numbers make it clear that people of color and millennials are the core constituency supporting environmental protection. Even if you don't value inclusion for its own sake, failing to prioritize these voters is foolish strategically. To strengthen environmental policies and corporate practices, and to shift culture toward sustainable practices as the status quo, the environmental movement must focus on these demographics who already care the most about environmental issues. And because these demographics are concerned with how environmental degradation will directly affect them, environmental messaging must focus not coral reefs and polar bears, but on clean air and safe drinking water, plastic pollution, dangerously strong storms, and a warming planet.

There is also a dramatic difference between political parties: 81 percent of Democrats but only 37 percent of Republicans rank environment a top priority, and 68 percent of Democrats (a 21 percent increase over the last decade) but only 18 percent of Republicans (holding steady for the last decade) rank addressing climate change as a priority.

However, this is not merely a partisan issue. Among Democrats, people of color are 13 percent more likely than whites to think climate change should be a policy priority.

For candidates of any party, environmental policies may well become a deciding factor in elections. When we zoom out, beyond age and race, 59 percent of Americans say our environment is in poor or fair shape, and 61 percent say it's getting worse. And the majority of Americans say the federal government is not doing enough to protect our water or air, or to address climate change. However, the demographic trends are clear. Millennials are on the cusp of surpassing Boomers as the largest and most diverse generation in American history (44 percent identify as a person of color). More of them reach voting age every day, their voter registration is skyrocketing, and they are on track to comprise 40 percent of the eligible voting population by 2020.

So as efforts to get out the vote ramp up for the election in November, and as time shrinks to implement policies that prevent runaway climate change, it's important to consider both who environmental voters are and how to get them to the polls. Voter turnout efforts are critical given that almost 16 million environmentalists who were registered to vote did not vote in the 2014 midterm elections - a shocking and influential number given the narrow margins in many races.

Politicians, campaign strategists, environmentalists, and volunteers going door-to-door under the overly sweltering sun should take these numbers to heart and plan accordingly. Voter turnout of people of color and millennials could impact the trajectory of our climate.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., is a marine biologist and founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for conservation solutions. She is an adjunct professor at NYU, a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed project, an advisor to Environmental Voter Project and Green 2.0. Follow her on Twitter at @ayanaeliza.

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