Opinion

By writing off climate change, are Republicans writing off young voters?

Trump’s environmental moves could well be harming the GOP in the long run

Young people who are witnessing the effects of climate change in their own lifetimes should not be expected to move away from the fight, Curtis writes. Above, young climate activists rally in Washington on Sept. 13. (Nathan Ouellette/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — It makes sense that young people, who will have to live with the consequences of decisions made by their elders, are becoming increasingly passionate about climate change and global warming. Once an afterthought on the list of issues at the top of voters’ concerns, the future of the environment is now the topic of candidate town halls, serious investigative reports and, on Wednesday, a congressional hearing featuring young people offering advice and warnings.

It’s hard to miss the extreme weather patterns that bring 500-year floods way too often. But are politicians missing the boat on an issue that could transform the voting patterns of a generation?

Several young climate activists testified Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. As 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg admonished lawmakers to “listen to the scientists,” raising the global reach of the climate challenge, she and the other young people, who spanned the ideological spectrum, received respect from Democrats and Republican alike.

Standing in the way

But as their warnings unfolded, President Donald Trump was making news for his reported plan to revoke California’s right to set stricter air pollution standards for cars and light trucks. For Trump, a skeptic when it comes to acknowledging the effects of man-made climate change, it was the latest step to roll back regulations that date to the Obama era and beyond. They include, but are not limited to, the decision to pull the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, opening national parks to drilling, and lifting the requirement that oil and gas companies measure methane leaks.

It is a bit hypocritical that an administration that supports states’ rights and balks at federal intervention on issues such as abortion rights and gun reform is all in when it comes to rules about the air we breathe and the water we drink, a topic that individual states would be expected to know most about.

The administration supports rollbacks, it says, in the name of reducing unnecessary regulations that hinder economic growth and jobs. However, in some cases, Trump is reversing moves the industries themselves have agreed to.

Of course, in California, the president gets a chance to exert his own power while punishing one of his least favorite states, the home base for many of the showbiz types who, for the most part, offer only scorn instead of the admiration he craves. If he can flex his muscle and dirty the Bel-Air air — with collateral damage for the state’s other residents who will never give him an electoral win — that’s a win-win, I’m sure. Expect lawsuits.

But as Trump keeps his promise to loosen environmental regulations and thread his own skepticism of global warming through federal policy, is he also endangering the GOP’s appeal to young people who are future voters?

Facing reality

Though Trump is unmoved, there are signs the other members of the Republican Party are turning attention to the topic, and not just as an occasion to attack any Democrat for supporting the Green New Deal that proponents see as necessary and that critics say is too broad and too expensive.

News outlets have been devoting time and resources into reporting on climate change, letting viewers see disappearing glaciers, plants and species. In Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas — well, any state affected by storms, droughts and devastating hurricanes and tornadoes — lawmakers’ constituents are demanding action and changing minds, no matter the party affiliation.

Even superstar Rihanna pauses on the red carpet to tell fans climate change is something that can’t be ignored.

Polls show a bleak electoral future for those who ignore what is literally in front of our faces. According to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, “A solid majority of American teenagers are convinced that humans are changing Earth’s climate and believe that it will cause harm to them personally and to other members of their generation. … Roughly one in 4 have participated in a walkout, attended a rally or written to a public official to express their views on global warming.” The poll also found that “more than seven in 10 teenagers and young adults say climate change will cause a moderate or great deal of harm to people in their generation, a slightly higher percentage than among those 30 and older.”

It’s hard to miss the fact that this moment may be a movement. New York City has given public school students permission, with parental consent, to miss school on Friday so they can participate in a Global Climate Strike, including a rally and march led by Thunberg. “We applaud our students when they raise their voices in a safe and respectful manner on issues that matter to them,” the school system tweeted. It precedes next week’s United Nations Climate Action Summit and the accompanying Youth Climate Summit this week — the first U.N. climate summit for young people.

For young people of color, the issue of environmental racism has become very real, with crises over lead in drinking water in cities such as Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, and pockets of disproportionate respiratory illnesses. Sam Riley, 17, of Boston, who is black, told The Washington Post, that low-income communities will be most severely affected by global warming: “The wealthier you are, the more protection you have.”

Whether they retain their passion certainly is not guaranteed. But just as teens fearful of school shootings have led in raising awareness on gun reform — and did not let their age stop them from leading the way — young people who are witnessing the effects of climate change in their own lifetimes should not be expected to move away from this fight.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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