The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The climate crisis spawned a generation of young activists. Now they’re voters.

Young climate voters made a difference in several Democratic primaries this cycle. Nov. 3 will show if they’ve developed real political muscle.

Maddie Graham, 18, a climate activist who voted in her first election, zooms down a zip line in her backyard on Oct. 28 in Silver Spring, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Madeline Graham, 18, fed her ballot into the machine at the Sandy Spring, Md., polling place, completing her journey from climate protester to climate voter — becoming one of millions of her generation compelled by their deep worry about the planet to vote for the first time.

“There’s a lot of emotions,” said Graham as she walked out of the early-voting center after casting her vote for president for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Proudly she pasted her “I voted” sticker to the dashboard of her truck.

“This is a very historical moment,” she added. “I’m glad I get to be a part of it.”

Young, teenage girls: the footsoldiers of the new environmental movement

Graham spent part of the past two years standing outside government buildings and legislators’ offices, trying to get adults to listen to her concerns about climate change. The high-schooler has attended sit-ins, held a weekly protest in front of the Capitol and last September helped orchestrate the school strike for climate that drew millions of young people from all over the world. “Sometimes it seems like all I can do,” she said last fall, “is yell at some guy in a big office to please care about the future.”

That changed when she turned 18 this month.

Graham is among a surging cohort of young voters who, for the first time in a presidential election, rank climate change as one of their top priorities. They came of age in an era of unprecedented natural disasters, orchestrated the largest global climate protests in half a century, and take credit for pushing environmental issues to the forefront of 2020 campaign.

And they appear to be reversing a long history of low turnout among young voters.

“The activation we’ve seen over the last couple years has definitely created a wave of energy that’s carried us to the ballot box,” said Katie Eder, the 20-year-old executive director of Future Coalition, a network of youth-led activist groups that organized the September 2019 climate strikes in the United States. “Young people understand that if we want to save our lives and our future we have to do it ourselves.”

Concern for the planet is a major motivator for this generation. Millennials and members of Gen Z are more likely than older voters to agree with the scientific consensus that the world is warming because of human activities. And while the Republican Party has no official plan regarding climate change, 49 percent of younger Republicans say the government should be doing more to combat its effects, according to a poll this summer from the Pew Research Center.

In a September poll from NPR, PBS News Hour and Marist, 16 percent of respondents between ages 18 and 29 rated climate change as their most important issue; only the economy ranked higher. By contrast, a 2016 Pew poll found that people younger than 50 were less likely than older Americans to say the environment was “very important” to their vote. For all age groups, the issue was outranked by a swath of other priorities, including Social Security and foreign policy.

In a recent Pew poll, 78 percent of Democrats and left-leaning Independents said climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress; five years ago, that number was 46 percent.

It’s a sign of how quickly concerns about climate have grown, Eder said. In the past four years, the United States has seen three of the five most destructive hurricanes ever, the biggest and the deadliest wildfires in California history, and the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest summer on record. A report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions almost by half in the next decade to avoid the most dangerous impacts of warming.

An array of new youth protest groups cropped up in response to the escalating threat: Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s organization Fridays for Future; the environmental justice group Zero Hour; the Sunrise Movement, which boosted the Green New Deal.

On Oct. 10, Thunberg, who has rallied millions of young people around climate, took the unusual step of urging her 4.2 million Twitter followers to support Biden.

For many young people, including Graham, climate groups provided a gateway into politics. In a 2020 poll from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 27 percent of Americans between 18 and 24 had participated in a march or demonstration, up from 5 percent in 2016.

“I don’t know if I would have voted this year if I wasn’t into activism,” Graham said. But her heightened awareness of environmental and racial justice issues compelled her to set a predawn alarm and stand for 45 minutes in the autumn chill to cast her ballot.

Organizations like Fridays For Future and Sunrise rose to prominence using outsider tactics — skipping school to protest, staking out the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But they have also encouraged members to get involved in politics in more traditional ways. Future Coalition says more than 10,000 people have used their platform to either register to vote or check their registration. Sunrise has spent more than $1 million this year on ads and voter turnout efforts, and volunteers with the group have reached hundreds of thousands of voters through phone and text banking, political director Evan Weber said.

“Sunrise has always believed we were going to need a critical mass of both people power and political power to win climate action on a scale of the crisis,” Weber said. “We tried to be proactive about sending the message that [protesting] is just one part of our activism just like voting is just one part of our activism.”

Around the country, there are signs that young climate voters can make a difference in some races.

The group is credited with helping Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) — co-author of the Green New Deal — beat back a Democratic primary challenge in Massachusetts from Rep. Joe Kennedy (Mass.) in September. Sunrise volunteers made 200,000 phone calls for his campaign, while a “Markeyverse” of young fans boosted the 74-year-old incumbent on social media.

A University of Massachusetts poll the week before the primary found that voters younger than 44 favored Markey by a 27-point margin.

“The young people’s spirit and their enthusiasm and their mobilization contributed enormously,” Markey said in an interview this week. “And it was because of the policy, because of the message, largely on the climate crisis.”

Similar efforts in Democratic primaries helped New York educator Jamaal Bowman and St. Louis activist Cori Bush upset longtime Reps. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.) and William Lacy Clay Jr. (Mo.). Of the 27 Senate and House candidates endorsed by Sunrise this year, all but eight won their primaries.

“The fact that a youth group is focusing so much of its energy on an election is really remarkable,” said Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has spent decades studying the environmental movement.

“Historically, there was this whole discussion of how young people aren’t seeing themselves represented institutionally in the political system … and that’s why they don’t vote,” she said. “But the youth climate movement has really helped create the resonating message that they have a role to play in politics."

In a sign of climate group’s clout, Biden strove to appeal to young, environmentally minded voters after securing the nomination. In August, he unveiled a $2 trillion climate plan developed by a task force that included Sunrise executive director Varshini Prakash as well as union leaders and former Democratic rivals.

“I want young climate activists, young people everywhere, to know: I see you. I hear you,” Biden said at a virtual fundraiser. “I understand the urgency, and together we can get this done.”

Now, youth voter turnout is on track to hit record levels. According to CIRCLE, more than 7 million people between ages 18 and 29 had already cast a ballot seven days before Election Day — more than twice the number from that point in 2016. Although concern about the coronavirus has increased early and absentee voting across the country, no other age group has seen as big a spike.

This surge of enthusiasm could prove consequential, said Abby Kiesa, CIRCLE’s director of impact. In several states where the presidential race is close, including North Carolina, Minnesota and Arizona, young people have doubled their share of the total early vote. Their turnout in these states has already exceeded the margin of victory from 2016.

If Biden and other candidates are elected, it could signal a turning point for climate as a campaign issue, Fisher said. “We will be moving in a direction that means you can’t ever again run a campaign without having some solutions to climate change,” she said.