Climate Change and the Youth Vote

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Not long ago, the terms “global warming” and “climate change” were not even part of our vernacular. Today few presidential candidates can get through a campaign speech without talking about them.

They would be wise to do so. Most Millennials and their fast-rising “Gen Z” counterparts—roughly the age group 18-34—make it number one on their priority list. Gun violence comes in second.

This cohort will comprise a whopping 37% of the electorate in 2020—enough to alter the outcome of the Democratic nomination battle and even the general election if sufficiently motivated to vote in large numbers.

Lately the top candidates and some of the wild card entries are stepping all over one another to corral the youth vote.

The sensitivity to climate issues and its paramountcy in the minds of these voters is obvious. How well these concerns are woven into the Democratic Party’s message is not yet known although it is having mixed results.

California billionaire and environmental activist, Tom Steyer, has run around the country preaching two things: the need to impeach the president and the perils of climate change.

However his crusade against global warming was dealt a severe blow when he failed to make the cut that would have landed him on the platform with 10 other candidates who qualified for the third debate scheduled for September 12th in Houston.

To do so he would have to reached 2 percent in at least four national or early state polls, but he fell one poll short. In addition he needed to have at least 130,000 “unique” donors including a minimum of 400 donors in at least 20 states.

Steyer had little trouble meeting the contribution threshold by using his massive personal wealth and the contact lists of his grassroots organizations Need To Impeach and NextGen, his political advocacy organization.

He has already spent millions on digital and television ads, primarily in early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina.  This would have been his debut on the big stage. He will get one more chance to join the front runners in October if he can better his poll ratings.

Two other would-be nominees, Rep. Tulsi Gabbart of Hawaii and Marianne Williamson were also edged out and must weigh the odds of continuing their candidacies. Williamson has already signaled she intends to stay in the fight.

The self-defined “spiritualist” who has written 13 books and has never held elective office preaches universal “love” as the fundamental cure for society’s ills.

She was long-since written off as a serious candidate. But a strong showing in the earlier debate thrust her ahead of a dozen better-known candidates who are already throwing in the towel or will soon.

One is New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand who announced she is ending her quest which leaves five women contenders if Gabbart – a close runner-up to Steyer —plans on staying the course.

Steyer has pledged he is prepared to spend at least $100 million to claim the nomination. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock who has yet to qualify, says the DNC (Democratic National Committee) is setting rules which allows someone such as Steyer “to buy a spot on the debate stage.”

Bullock added, “We’re getting to the point where we’re spending money online as opposed to actually talking to voters. The Republican Party all throughout 2015 had a 1% threshold. It is a rough day when Democrats are less inclusive than Republicans.”

Notwithstanding his extravagant spending binge, Steyer may be coming too late to the party after denying repeatedly any interest in the job.

We need look no further than Washington’s two-term highly popular Democratic Governor Jay Inslee who having similarly staked his future on the single issue of global warming just pulled himself out of the presidential race.

This despite the results of a recent Yale and George Mason University survey that ranked climate change 17th on a list of 29 key issues for all registered voters but 3rd among liberal Democrats and 8th among moderates and conservatives.

A better gauge of enthusiasm for climate change reforms and a key to his unwavering support among his youthful followers is seen in top-tier candidate Vermont’s Bernie Sanders’s recent unveiling of an eye-popping $16.3 trillion Green New Deal-based plan which would declare climate change “a national emergency.”

Sanders made extraordinary inroads into the student and youth vote in the 2016 presidential primaries across the nation and received more of their votes in some states than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined, including an impressive showing in California.

Steyer, who shows no intention of quitting regardless of the polls is unlikely to transfer many of those allegiances to himself.

At least one other contender, the state’s junior Senator Kamala Harris is bound to put a big dent in the changing demographic mix—especially among young minority voters, Latinos, and new voters looking for fresh faces.

However, Harris drew some heavy criticism just last week when she announced plans to skip a major climate forum and then abruptly changed her mind.

Citing a scheduling conflict, she initially refused an invitation to participate in an event sponsored by Sunrise Movement, the youth-focused political action group oriented towards solutions for the climate crisis instead planning to attend a fund-raiser for well-heeled donors in Los Angeles.

Last week, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Sacramento, Sanders made his Green New Deal pitch wholeheartedly adopting the proposal of the controversial first-term Representative from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose ultra-progressive declarations are giving Democratic leaders fits.

Harris though was among the first to advocate for the proposal that sets a goal of getting 100 percent of U.S. electricity from renewable energy and has declared climate change “an existential threat.” She has yet to detail her own plans.

Not to be outdone on the issue of climate change, the leading candidate in the latest polls, though evidencing some loss of support, is Joe Biden.

Touting his environmentalist credentials, Biden points out that he was among the first to introduce a climate change bill in the Senate, and the record proves to generally agree. He sponsored the Global Climate Protection Act of 1986 that was largely put into a spending bill in 1987.

However Californians young and older may otherwise view Biden’s candidacy, the hard-charging former Vice President may have scored some points recently when he presented his campaign’s first climate platform labelling the Green New Deal “a crucial framework.”

Another candidate who has not been timid about her views which are well to the Left and has been putting meat on a whole variety of proposals calling for “sweeping and big structural change” if she is elected is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

She was among those in San Francisco earlier this week participating in proceedings of the Democratic National Committee.

While in her stump speeches Warren has been inveighing against the evils of economic and political power concentrated in the few and corruption everywhere, she has not been ignoring the appeal of Sanders and to a lesser extent, Harris.

The highly reputable journal, Inside Climate News, has been studying Warren’s views and reports as follows

“Look at the Climate Risk Disclosure Act that she introduced in September that would require companies to disclose the risk climate change poses to their financial assets. The bill would require companies to release information on their greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel holdings, and how they would be impacted by both climate policies and the effects of climate change.

Unlike Biden, Sanders and Harris, Warren is untested in California. But at least temporarily, her rising star has put her into a three-way tie in the polls with both Biden and Sanders. This will give her coveted positioning rights next to Biden in the upcoming debate.

The Harris face-off with Biden in the first debate gave her a big bounce in the polls. But Harris’s rise and to a lesser extent that of several other surging candidates appears to have eroded some of her support.

There is one other Californian who has more than a passing interest in candidate stances on climate change. That would be Gov. Gavin Newsom—a potential future contender for a seat in the Oval Office—who is aggressively pursuing his own climate change agenda.

Referring to Gov. Inslee’s sudden exit from the presidential race and his bid for a third term as Washington’s governor a New York Times editorial editorialized:

“Should he (Inslee) win, he will remain, along with New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, as one of the three most important leaders of the effort by America’s states and cities to reduce their emissions and compensate for Mr. Trump’s failure at the federal level.”

Interestingly the Democratic Party at its recent conclave in San Francisco ignored the demands of many attendees for a separate candidate debate on climate change. That might have been a missed opportunity to call further attention to an issue that should drive many young voters to the polls.

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