Republicans lose the debate over climate change, they also
lose the youth vote
David S. Bernstein
have a lot to say about the immorality of saddling the next
generation with our national debt. But when it comes to leaving
them a wrecked, depleted and rapidly warming planet, they
are taking the exact opposite line.
That’s especially odd when you consider how important that
next generation is to the faltering GOP—and how broadly united
those voters, known as Millennials, are in their concern over
global warming and other energy and environment issues.
GOP leaders claim to be courting these young adults, but that
apparently extends only to their use of Twitter and promises
of a “hip-hop” party makeover. Meanwhile, they seem intent
on not just opposing but wildly denouncing and denigrating
this generation’s most unifying issue.
Even the most senior Republican leaders, and the top GOP lawmakers
on energy and environment committees, keep shooting themselves
in the foot by spewing antiquated, anti-science nonsense.
If they continue this type of Neanderthal posturing, the GOP
is going to lose something a lot more valuable than its old
moderates, like Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched
parties to become a Democrat.
Those who study Millennial politics say that the Republican
Party is on the verge of completely alienating the coming
generation—just as previous controversial platforms it has
endorsed ensured that the party kissed off such huge demographic
swaths as African-Americans, single women, and Hispanics,
who at present vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
the issue of climate change, and its particular effect on
future generations, has long been on the back burner in Washington,
it appears to be heading for the headlines. President Barack
Obama has said that he wants to pass a comprehensive environment
and energy law this year. That bill, the “American Clean Energy
and Security Act” (ACES), co-authored by Democrats—Massachusetts
Congressman Edward Markey and California Congressman Henry
Waxman—is now being finalized, following hearings that coincided
with Earth Day. It attempts to reduce carbon emissions, promote
the use of renewable-energy sources, invest in “smart grid”
infrastructure and create green-industry jobs.
is no question in my mind that climate change, and the effort
to address these issues, could catalyze a generation,” says
Lawrence Rasky, chairman of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications
in Boston and former advisor to Markey.
But could it also bring Democratic Party dominance? For good
or ill, that’s what’s coming to Capitol Hill if the early
tendency of Millennials—who voted more than two-to-one for
Obama—solidifies into long-term political allegiance.
The math is not complicated. At 100 million strong, Millennials—those
born between roughly 1980 and 2000—are the single largest
generation of Americans, ever; and, according to a new report
authored by Ruy Teixeira, analyst with the left-leaning Center
for American Progress, another 4.5 million of them reach voting
age every year. By 2016, they will already comprise a third
of the total vote.
Twenty years from now, they will make up almost two-fifths
of the electorate. If they vote the way they did for Obama,
or anywhere close to it, the GOP is effectively finished for
the foreseeable future—the first victim of the very global
warming that the party has largely refused to acknowledge
Global warming, more than any other issue, carries an urgency
among Millennials of all backgrounds and ideologies. “That’s
the scary thing, if you work for the RNC [Republican National
Committee],” says John della Volpe, who studies this generation
at the Harvard University Institute of Politics (IOP). “It
absolutely cuts across all the demographics.”
young people, no issue is more important,” says Pat Johnson,
a Suffolk University student and president of the College
Democrats of Massachusetts. “We are going to have to live
with the consequences of inaction.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that getting bogged down over
environmental legislation would distract Democrats from important
issues like the economy and foreign policy. But that shows
how little politicians have taken to heart the importance
of the Millennials, say Michael Hais and Morley Winograd,
co-authors of Millennial Makeover.
To this generation, this fight is not only about climate change—it
is about creating green jobs and increasing national security
by reducing dependence on foreign oil.
feel a real sense of urgency about dealing with the energy
and environment,” says Teixeira.
For some time now, they have channeled their efforts into
activism, particularly on school campuses, where grassroots
“going green” efforts (to pressure administrators into adopting
energy- saving or recycling practices) are commonplace.
Now, some young voters are starting to take that message to
Washington. In March, 12,000 young adults and college students
representing PowerShift ’09, a coalition of 40 environmental
groups, rallied in Washington, DC, to demand green-friendly
energy and environmental legislation.
Markey—who spoke at that rally—has held two hearings specifically
to hear testimony from young leaders. One of those hearings
overflowed the largest congressional hearing room available,
says a staffer on Markey’s committee, who adds that young
adults wearing green PowerShift shirts also packed the recent
hearings on the ACES bill.
political weight and their political savvy is growing,” the
aide says. “And they want the strongest bill.”
a stance utterly bewildering to most Beltway veterans, Millennials
don’t necessarily view the environment as a partisan or ideological
issue. To them, it’s an infrastructure problem, like wanting
the New Orleans levees fixed.
That’s why even those Millennials otherwise open to the GOP
will get turned off if the party opposes climate-change progress.
environment can link groups that disagree on other issues,”
says Hais. “Even young evangelicals.”
Indeed, perhaps the most interesting group of Millennials
is what della Volpe calls the religious center, which comprise
about a fifth of Millennials. Members of that group hold many
of the conservative beliefs of older evangelicals: They fear
the moral decay of American culture; they disapprove of homosexuality;
and they want more religion in public life. Yet on other issues—and
particularly on the environment—they are progressive. In particular,
they believe in man’s biblical responsibility to be good stewards
of the Earth.
are greener than any other group” of Millennials, says della
Volpe, who compares them to traditional New England Catholics,
historically solid Democratic voters despite strong disagreements
with the party over abortion and other issues.
In 2004, the religious-center Millennials split their votes
evenly between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Just four years
later, della Volpe believes, they voted “overwhelmingly for
Obama,” though he does not yet have the final numbers.
The environmental-legislation debate, if it divides the parties
as cleanly as expected, could go a long way toward making
the GOP unpalatable for those voters.
If the GOP keep this up, notes Teixeira, “It probably will
be true that this generation will be locked in with the Democratic
Party for years—and completely out of reach for the Republican
course, Democrats have a long history of screwing up golden
opportunities. And they could do it again.
Millennials’ Democratic leaning is not yet set in stone. In
fact, says Peter Lawrence, director of the Center for Information
& Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University
in Medford, Mass., just a couple of years ago, Democrats had
only a slight advantage among Millennials.
And Millennials are not yet moving in large numbers toward
registering, or self-identifying, as Democrats, adds della
generation has quite a lot of cynicism about political institutions,”
says Teixeira. “Even though they have the initial approval
of this group. . . . Democrats have to show this generation
that they are not just the same-old, same-old.”
Which is exactly what could happen if Democrats fail to follow
through on global warming.
For now, the House appears ready to move swiftly and aggressively
on the far-reaching ACES bill, currently running 648 (tree-killing)
pages. But already there are signs that Democrats in the Senate,
and Obama himself, may be leaning toward moving much more
slowly on the issue.
Rasky, who is following the issue closely, says that the hesitancy
about going for the jugular here lies with Democratic senators
from “brown states”—those heavily reliant on old-fashioned,
coal- and gasoline-based manufacturing, like Michigan, Pennsylvania,
Ohio, and West Virginia. Those lawmakers are reluctant to
move too quickly on reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions,
particularly in the form of “cap and trade,” the approach
incorporated in Markey’s bill.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Environment
and Public Works Committee, has also indicated that, rather
than vote on the House bill, she will set up her own study
groups—and possibly not emerge with a bill until next spring.
Obama, who tried unsuccessfully to include cap and trade in
the recently passed budget, has been notably quiet about the
That has led to growing concerns that the legislation might
be watered down to ensure passage. Cap and trade might come
out altogether; huge exemptions might be given; target reductions
might be modified. Many on the left are complaining—Robert
F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent voice on the environment, has
blasted the bill for including so-called clean-coal technology.
have a problem,” says Levine, “because young people are more
optimistic about finding solutions. So if they fail, young
people would be very disappointed.”
And if lawmakers delay the passage of this bill to avoid a
political battle, they run into another problem: the most
important climate event in a decade, the Copenhagen Summit
coming in December, which Obama will attend along with representatives
of 175 nations. That’s when the world will try to forge a
new international agreement, as the old Kyoto Protocols (which
the United States never ratified) expire.
Former Vice President Al Gore, testifying at Markey’s hearing,
stressed the importance of getting the legislation done before
Copenhagen, to move the United States in line with other countries.
With high-profile advocates like Gore leading them, Millennials
are likely to view Copenhagen as a looming imperative.
Millennials’ faith in international cooperation is extraordinarily
high—whether applied to stopping genocide in Darfur, or willingness
to sit down with rogue leaders—and is no different in this
instance, according to those who study Millennial-generation
political attitudes. “That’s a very big deal,” says della
Volpe, “and that’s never going to change. Without question.”
Of course, that’s also the Democrats’ safety net for not mucking
up this bill: Republicans these days loathe international
cooperation, and are sure to make that known as Copenhagen
approaches. “If one party is seen as impeding the United States’
ability to take part in a multinational approach,” says Winogard,
“it could be a nail in the coffin for Republican credibility
would be wise to avoid divisiveness on this issue, and some
have tried. After all, Republican presidential candidate John
McCain was an outspoken believer in the importance of fighting
global warming—and even his more conservative running mate,
Sarah Palin, accepts the reality she sees all around her in
has the potential to be completely bipartisan,” says Suffolk
University’s Johnson. “It doesn’t have to be ideological.”
Republican leaders have a strategy for presenting a reasonable
opposition to environment and energy reform. They intend to
argue that the particular approach the Democrats are taking
would be too costly. That’s a reasonable argument to counter
the Democrats’ initiatives.
But the loosest cannons in the GOP—and they are legion—simply
cannot stick with the game plan. How can they? Surveys show
that solid majorities of Republicans believe that global warming
is either a myth or, at most, a wildly overblown media creation.
Those warming deniers control the party, and their elected
officials can only go along with it.
As a result, prominent Republicans regularly spew inanities
on climate change ready-made for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
And it only gets worse when you move beyond the elected Republicans.
The most popular conservative talk-show hosts, publications,
bloggers, and pundits are almost unanimously dismissive of
global warming, from columnist George F. Will, to Fox News
superstar Glenn Beck, to bloggers at red state.com.
After the recent EPA announcement on regulating greenhouse
gases, Jonah Goldberg, National Review contributor,
Fox News analyst, book author, and rising star of right-wing
punditry, fumed on National Review Online, without
irony, that “A federal agency has decided that it has the
power to regulate everything, including the air you breathe”—as
if, under the Clean Air Act, the federal government has not
been doing exactly that for the past four decades.
To almost anyone under the age of 30, all of this is similar
to watching cigarette executives insist that smoking isn’t
voters get interested when they can choose sides,” says Rasky,
and the Republicans are going to make that very easy. “You
give them the opportunity, they’ll talk about drilling for
oil, and how global warming isn’t really happening.” To Millennials,
that rhetoric makes the GOP nothing more than obnoxious gas.
S. Bernstein is a staff writer at Boston Phoenix, where
this article first appeared.