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There are, of course, many reasons to vote. But as wildfires engulf the West Coast, heat waves and hurricanes devastate entire regions, and rising sea levels threaten cities like Miami, an increasing number of voters are saying climate change is what’s driving them to cast their ballot — and in some cases, even influencing who they support.
“Climate change voters” aren’t yet a reliable voting bloc the way gun-loving NRA voters are for the Republican Party, Alec Tyson of the Pew Research Center told Quartz. But they’re quickly becoming one. In the past few years, more people have started to identify themselves as such, and naming climate change as the primary issue that is motivating them to vote.
“I think that in 2020, this will be the first election where you’re going to see climate come up like healthcare, national security, jobs, and economic security, as a reason people vote and a reason people engage in this election,” Lauren French, senior communications director at Climate Power 2020, told Refinery29.
In fact, climate change is the single most important issue among Democrats during this election cycle, edging out concerns over healthcare and the economy, according to a recently released NPR survey. (For Republicans, it doesn’t even rank as one of their top six concerns.)
Between 2014 and 2019, the number of Americans who are worried about climate change nearly tripled, reports the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. A recent poll conducted by VICE Media Group and several partners found that 78% of voters support retraining former fossil fuel workers into renewable energy jobs, to help rebuild the economy after COVID. And 65% of voters say they want to see Congress and the next president draft a serious and comprehensive bill addressing how the U.S. plans to fight climate change as soon as next year.
Despite the fact that it’s top of mind for voters, climate change is chronically under-discussed in the media and political debates. “The last time a climate question was asked [during a presidential or vice presidential debate] was in 2008, which seems to be fake, but it’s just an absurd amount of time,” French said. The Commission on Presidential Debates recently announced which topics U.S. President Donald Trump and former VP Joe Biden will cover in the upcoming debate on September 29, and — once again — climate change is not on the roster. Varshini Prakash, Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement, said it is an “abdication of the media’s role to keep people informed for climate to be completely erased from the docket.”
French said the September 29 roster surprised her, given the push among voters for politicians to talk about the issue during debates. “I recognize that Chris Wallace works for Fox, I’m a pretty pragmatic and realistic human being, but [during the debates, he’s been chosen to] ask on behalf of all American voters, not just the audience that watches Fox News,” she said. “So he has a greater responsibility than to appease folks who watch Fox and don’t want to believe that the climate crisis is here.”
Asked about the debate topic, Biden deputy national press secretary Matt Hill said, “Regardless of what’s happening in the news or on the debate stage, Vice President Biden will continue treating the climate crisis as a front-and-center issue, as he has been throughout the entire campaign.”
Unfortunately, views on climate change — like wearing masks during the pandemic, another life-or-death issue — tend to be divided among party lines. Pew Research Center found that 88% of Democrats consider climate change a major threat, compared to only 31% of Republicans. 78% of Democrats think dealing with global climate change should be a “top priority” this year (up from 46% in 2015), while only 21% of Republicans agree.
This election season, climate change voters are unequivocal about getting rid of Trump — who has withdrawn from the Paris Climate agreement, consistently scaled back environmental protections, expanded Arctic drilling, and denied that climate change even exists.
Joe Biden, to them, presents the best hope for the future. After engaging with communities, including environmental organizations, environmental justice advocates, and labor unions, his campaign has developed an aggressive plan to end carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 with a broad investment in jobs and infrastructure. This includes USD $2 trillion for clean energy projects, as well as a promise to direct 40% of its climate spending to marginalized communities. “The fact that you have the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the United Auto Workers, IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), and a swath of environmental justice leaders all coming out in support of the same climate plan is unprecedented and speaks to Joe Biden’s ability to bring together all kinds of leaders who we need to be engaging on this issue,” said Hill.
Trump’s embrace of fossil fuels and climate denial — he recently dismissively said that it will “start getting cooler” in reference to the West Coast wildfires — have even pushed a considerable number of climate voters to the Democratic party, French said. David Jeffrey Arnot, 22, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he changed his registration after seeing “an increasingly worrying denial of science from the Republican party.” According to an April survey by Climate Power 2020, 62% of Republican-leaning “persuadable voters” disapprove of Trump’s handling of climate and 72% think that strong climate action will be good for the economy.
The other major “climate voter” group are “Bernie voters” who are not necessarily sold on Biden, but who are so passionate about stepping up on climate action that they will vote for him, since of the current candidates, he is the only one with solutions to the issue, French said. Then, there are the Democrats who would likely vote for Biden otherwise, and also consider climate change their number-one issue.
Another Climate Power 2020 survey shows that Latinx voters are particularly engaged on climate change: 77% of Latinx voters favor bold government action on climate change, 71% of voters overall support it. Women, millennials, people of color, and those earning under $50,000 a year are all more likely to list this issue as top priority in elections, according to the Environmental Voter Project. This may be because climate change affects these populations more significantly and directly: Reports say climate change will take a disproportionate toll on low-income communities, for instance, as they already have higher rates of adverse health conditions, are more exposed to environmental hazards, and take longer to bounce back from natural disasters.
For many climate change voters, their personal experience has helped inform their attitudes. Ivette Alsina, 49, who lives in Winter Haven, FL, fled from Cayey, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria; scientists say climate change was behind the hurricane’s deadly rainfall. Alsina said she had to leave behind a lot of family and friends. “We need to start paying attention to what is happening, because it’s not only happening in Puerto Rico, but around the world,” she said.
Alejandra Cadiz, 53, in Grayson, GA, says the heatwaves in Georgia have gotten unbearable — she hasn’t experienced anything like it since she moved there in 1996. “Without taking care of this problem, we are not going to be here in 50 more years, we are not going to live on this planet. So nothing else will matter, not healthcare, not economics,” she said.
Heather Toney, 44, lives in Oxford, MS, and has two children ages four and 14. The former mayor of Greenville, MS, she now works with the Biden campaign on climate issues. Mississippi has dealt not only with extensive flooding, but a record number of storms. “Joe understands that we are working now to protect the next generation, but that we always need to have practical solutions,” Toney told Refinery29.
“I’m a Black woman in Mississippi and a mother, so I cannot be anything but a climate change voter,” Toney said, adding that there is a clear connection between climate justice and racial justice. “Voter suppression is directly connected to climate change because to achieve change, we have to have the people voting. But we can’t get the people into office who would make changes because the vote is being suppressed.” Because of redlining policies, the devastating effects of chemical pollution on Black communities are intensified. In “cancer alley” — where people are 50 times as likely to get cancer than the average American — you see the product of redlining at work, with low-income Black people living along an 85-mile-long stretch along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana, which is covered with oil refineries and petrochemical plants. The area has also seen some of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the U.S.
Among some younger voters, attitudes toward Biden’s climate change plan are more mixed. The Green New Deal, written by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed. Markey, is in their view a more ambitious plan than Biden’s. Biden has essentially embraced the framework of the Green New Deal, including its jobs guarantee, but wouldn’t ban natural gas and oil fracking or phase out nuclear power.
“When I vote, especially at the more local level, I vote for representatives who either support the Green New Deal or have similar elements on their platform,” Lourdes Ginart, 27, from Eugene, Oregon, who is registered as an Independent and is voting for Biden, told Refinery29. “I think winning the Senate back will be the best way for climate champions and concerned representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ed Markey to push the legislation we desperately need for a more equitable and sustainable U.S.”
Daniel Jubelirer, 27, said that he volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, and plans to vote for Biden largely because of his climate plan. “I got involved with the Sunrise Movement a few years ago, and it was through Sunrise that I saw that the Democratic Party is what we push for them to be,” he said, referring to the youth climate justice movement that played a big role in advocating for the Green New Deal to be part of Biden’s plan. “If you push candidates to support very bold policies, they will. I’ve been really impressed with the way that Biden has listened to young leaders. I don’t think he goes far enough, and I’d love to see him do more. But his climate plan is still the most ambitious of any nominee in history. I like that he’s addressing creating jobs. If his climate plan is fully implemented, it’s very good.”