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The Heat 2020

Climate Change Is Stirring Up Young Voters

After a long slump in youth voting, enthusiasm has spiked: In 2018 the number of young voters doubled over the 2014 midterm election.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Climate activist Elsa Mengistu

For Elsa Mengistu, it all began with guns. The 18-year-old North Carolina native first found her way into organizing for a cause through the Winston-Salem chapter of March for Our Lives, the youth activist movement formed after the 2018 shooting that killed 17 people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But in coming to understand the factors that cause guns to proliferate in American society, Mengistu, who is black, started to see racism and poverty and gun violence as all part of the same problematic system that puts corporate profits over people’s well-being — how lower-income people live in more polluted communities, for example.


“The Heat 2020” explores the nexus of climate change and politics in the current election year. It will cut through the sound bites and press releases to chronicle a most fateful year for our environment and country. 


 
“That kind of got the gears turning,” says Mengistu, who at the time was in 11th grade in High Point, North Carolina. “I just started seeing how everything — literally everything on this Earth is interconnected.” One day she was scrolling through social media when she came across a post about the youth-led Global Climate Strike. “I just felt like they were building a new future,” she says. “And I ended up joining them in Washington, D.C., organizing for this giant march.”

She didn’t expect it to last. “I didn’t see being in the climate movement long term,” she says. “But now it’s like the core of my identity.” She is now organizing a conference for more than 3,000 climate-concerned young people in D.C. next year.

Had she been born 20 years earlier, Mengistu, now a freshman at Howard University, might have concentrated her energies exclusively on marches and direct-action protests, chaining herself to the fence of a proposed new nuclear plant or occupying a road to stop a coal train. After years of Republicans in Congress refusing to take action on the climate crisis, however, in 2020 she’ll also go to the polls. In March she’ll go home to North Carolina to vote for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, because, she says, “No [candidate] has kept their word as well as Bernie Sanders has.” In November she’ll vote the Democratic ticket from president on down, even though she’s declined to affiliate with any political party. She’ll even vote for Pete Buttigieg if she has to, she says. “I’ll be cursing my last name, but I’ll do it.”

After a long slump in youth voting, during which voting among the 18-24 set in presidential election years went from 51 percent in 1964 to 32 percent in 2000, the youth vote has been, in fits and starts, trending upwards. More recently, voter enthusiasm among young people has spiked: Only 17 percent of young voters bothered with the 2014 midterm election; in 2018, that number doubled. “It’s dramatic,” says Abby Kiesa, the director of impact for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “We haven’t seen anything like that in 25 years.”

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In the Iowa Democratic caucus, voters under 30 accounted for one-quarter of all participants. For comparison, the last year in which only the Democratic Party (and not the Republicans) had a competitive presidential primary, in 2012, young people made up 15 percent of the crowd. A recent Harvard poll of young voters found in 2015 that only 36 percent of 18-29-year-olds said they would vote in their party’s primary or participate in a caucus; four years later, that number had risen to 43.

The potential for another four years of Donald J. Trump is certainly a motivating factor: The University of Chicago’s GenForward survey — a quarterly look at young adults’ views on politics — found in October that a majority of 18- to 36-year-olds across parties believe that Trump “has definitely or probably improperly used his office to attack his political opponents.” Health care matters, too: A plurality of young voters support establishing a public option for health insurance, and 21 percent of young Democrats support Medicare-for-All.

It’s environment and climate change that top the list of most important issues among young Democrats and independents. “Our generation understands the connection between climate action and the elections,” says Katie Eder, the 20-year-old executive director of The Future Coalition, a national network of youth organizers. “We know that we need elected officials who understand the climate crisis and are prepared to take the necessary action to address it.”

Which is not to say climate is the only issue at stake. The GenForward survey, as Abby Kiesa points out, found black and Latinx youth ranked racism and immigration over all else. “Young people of color navigating discrimination are thinking politically on an everyday basis,” she says. “They see how it affects a whole wide range of issues in this country.”

Mengistu believes that proves her point: Climate is not an isolated issue. Everything is indeed connected. “Climate change didn’t happen by accident,” she says. “There are systems in place that have set us up so we’re in this moment. I realized a long time ago that if I wanted to fight for any other issue — if I wanted to stand up for women’s rights, if I wanted to stand up for LGBTQ rights, if I wanted to fight mass incarceration or the school-to-prison pipeline — I had to fight climate injustice.”

Voting isn’t the “end all and be all” of that fight — “we have elections every year, and we’re still on the brink of extinction,” she says — but it’s still “one of the most powerful things that we can do as individuals.”

“People fought for the right to vote,” she says. “People died for it. People were killed for it. I honor that.”


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