The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can climate change be the issue that finally spurs heavy youth turnout?

Activists with the Sunrise Movement protest at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building on Feb. 25. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Few exchanges capture the burgeoning generational fight over climate change better than when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) met with students from California in her office last month. The students were encouraging Feinstein to support the proposed Green New Deal, an encouragement that the senator didn’t receive warmly.

“I know what I’m doing,” Feinstein said. “You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that. I’ve gotten elected. I just ran; I was elected by almost a million vote plurality. And I know what I’m doing. So, you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.”

“I hear what you’re saying, but we’re the people who voted for you,” one of the students said. “You’re supposed to listen to us. That’s your — That’s your job.”

“How old are you?” Feinstein asked her.

“I’m 16. I can’t vote,” she replied.

“Well, you didn’t vote for me,” Feinstein said.

A younger girl spoke up.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We’re the ones who are going to be impacted.”

“Words mean something,” Feinstein replied.

Feinstein’s not wrong about the practicalities of voting, of course. Nor was she wrong when she argued that the Green New Deal wouldn’t pass Congress. She was probably right in the abstract about something else, too: That young voters wouldn’t have voted for a candidate who endorsed moderate steps forward on climate change even if they could.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants to change that last part. He told the New York Times last week that he saw climate change as a way to mobilize young voters who are engaged on the issue to come out and vote — for Democrats, he obviously hopes. He wants, he said, to “take that energy and channel it into something more constructive," like, well, Senate seats.

This is a perennial conversation: how to get the young people to vote. Last year, the motivating factor was going to be the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., but it’s not yet clear how much more heavily young people might have voted in the midterms than they normally do. If there was an increase — some signs well before the elections suggested it would be modest — it could be hard to identify the cause of that surge in a wave election for Democrats.

It’s clear that younger voters are indeed more likely to support encouraging Congress to take immediate action on climate change. Data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show that those under the age of 30 are 10 percentage points more likely to support congressional action than those 60 or older — though support for such action has climbed among people of every age since 2013.

Pew Research Center data show a similar upward swing — and a similar gap between the youngest and oldest Americans.

Pew’s data are significant because of how the question is framed: Most of those under the age of 30 believe that dealing with climate change should be a top priority for Congress and the president. That “most,” though, is only a small majority.

Climate change is one of the most starkly polarized issues in American politics. Republicans generally don’t view it as a priority, while Democrats do. Those party labels, of course, also overlap with age groups: Younger voters are more likely to be Democrats and older voters — especially those 70 and up — Republicans. Does emphasizing climate change to goose low-turning-out young people risk energizing older voters against a candidate?

Probably not. Yale’s 2018 look at climate change and politics found that the most conservative voters were the least likely to care about a candidate’s position on climate change.

More liberal voters are more motivated to support candidates based on their climate opinions. More conservative ones aren’t.

That doesn’t mean that the strategy will work. Billionaire Tom Steyer has invested heavily in turning out young voters over the past few cycles using a climate-focused message, but it’s not clear how effective that has been.

Post-election polling in 2016 asked voters who didn’t vote why they didn’t cast a ballot. Both a Post-Schar School poll and data from Pew Research Center show that about a quarter of those who didn’t vote identified dissatisfaction with the candidates as the primary reason. Meaning that three-quarters of those who didn’t vote failed to do so for another reason. In our poll, for example, about half of respondents said they were either ineligible or forgot to cast a ballot.

Presumably those who would be compelled to vote by a candidate who put an emphasis on climate change would have said they didn’t vote in 2016 because of dissatisfaction with the candidates. Pew’s data, though, show that this factor was larger in 2016 than in prior years, indicating that usually candidate choice is a less common reason for not voting. (There was no significant difference by age in how often candidate choice was cited as a reason for not voting.)

Maybe Schumer’s right. Maybe emphasizing climate change will motivate young voters to vote in a way that they haven’t in the past. He certainly wouldn’t be the first person to predict that he could goose turnout among young voters. Nor, if it doesn’t work, would he be the first person to fail.