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Kids These Days

As Republicans lose the debate over climate change, they also lose the youth vote

By David S. Bernstein

Republicans 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.

While 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.

“There 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 exists.

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.”

“For 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.

“Millennials 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.

“Their political weight and their political savvy is growing,” the aide says. “And they want the strongest bill.”

In 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.

“The 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.

“They 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 Party.”

Of 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 Volpe.

“This 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 issue.

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.

“Democrats 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 among Millennials.”

Republicans 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 Alaska.

“This 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

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 harmful.

“Younger 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.

David S. Bernstein is a staff writer at Boston Phoenix, where this article first appeared.

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