The 2020 election is, simply put, the most important election the planet has ever seen. It may sound like American hyperbole or bluster, but the reality of four years under the Trump administration combined with what it has telegraphed as its plan for the next four years would be a disaster for the climate. Limiting heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels hangs in the balance, and with it, the fate of coral reefs, small island nations, and millions of people who will face instability, violence, and famine.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee has put forward a $2 trillion climate plan that, while imperfect, is still light-years ahead of any plan to address the crisis ever proposed by a presidential nominee from a major party. The choice between Biden and President Donald Trump could not be starker, and the election could hinge on the differences in how both candidates plan to deal with reducing emissions (or, in Trump’s case, not).
The groups best poised to make climate the issue that tips the election to Biden—and the Senate to the Democrats—aren’t just rank-and-file environmental organizations, though. Legacy environmental groups will certainly have a role to play, but it’s the burgeoning youth climate movement that’s poised to help at the margins to create a new Democratic coalition that centers climate policy and pushes the party to take bold action.
“If there’s one thing I want every young person to know, our hand is only as strong as the work we put in in the next 40 days,” said Evan Weber, the Sunrise Movement’s political director. “If we’re able to go in in January 2021 with a Joe Biden presidency and with a Democratic Senate, and our people were a key part of the coalition that helped deliver them there, they have to deliver for us because ultimately politics is a game of power. And that’s who these folks are most responsible to at the end of the day.”
Americans are considering climate as they make their choices this November more than ever before. Recent polling by Yale and George Mason universities shows that Americans’ concerns about climate change are at or near high-water marks on everything from its impact on future generations to the harm it could do to the U.S. The same polling found similar record-setting percentages for those who want impactful climate policy.
Progressive polling group Data for Progressive found that a majority of likely voters support a wide range of environmental justice initiatives and even the Green New Deal itself (though their polling also shows how Fox News has poisoned the well for Republicans by spreading baseless claims about the plan). Just Wednesday morning, the Guardian, Vice, and Covering Climate Now released a poll showing nearly two-thirds of registered voters are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports 100% clean electricity by 2035. Seventy percent also support re-entering the Paris Agreement, the poll found. Biden is running on both policies.
If this is a moment of radical possibility, it’s also a moment of radical peril. We’re on a knife’s edge with the carbon budget—a metric for how much carbon pollution we can somewhat safely emit—nearly tapped out. Going over it would put the budget and planet into the red, which is why the United Nations put out an urgent report last year urging world governments to come together and reduce emissions by 7% per year for the next decade.
“I think that there is very much both a recognition of the need for dramatic change, and then there’s also the political circumstances coming in to a reality that could actually deliver that in terms of a major potential electoral victory in November,” said Leah Greenberg, the co-executive director of Indivisible, a group focused on electing progressive candidates to Congress.
At this unique moment with the need to rapidly draw down emissions, the climate movement has amassed people power that’s been reinforced by the fact that voters can just look out their window and see the impacts of climate change. The entire West Coast has been engulfed in flames, just as the Atlantic hurricane season set record after disastrous record.
Meanwhile, the candidates at the top of the presidential tickets could not be more different when it comes to climate policy. Everything’s in place for this to be the climate election, even in a year with pandemic-driven economic collapse and rising inequality. It’s a question of whether the youth movement can deliver the votes—and if they can make the case to Democrats, provided they win a unified government.
Consider the meteoric rise of groups like the Sunrise Movement, and the fact that we’re even talking about if they could influence a presidential election. Sunrise and nearly the entire youth climate movement ecosystem didn’t really exist during the 2016 presidential election and was nascent at best during the 2018 midterms. But in the two years since, it has exploded into a force with real political power.
Sunrise rose to national prominence after staging a sit-in in newly minted House Speak Nancy Pelosi’s office in January 2019. The group called for policies with a mix of moral clarity and outrage that traditional environmental groups have largely failed to harness in their appeals. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed up, fresh from orientation, it set the internet on fire.
“They were able to take advantage of this moment of interest, of excitement, of people saying, ‘What is the Green New Deal? I know that I want it,’ and actually turn that into real infrastructure very quickly,” Greenberg said. “What’s been amazing to see about Sunrise is both the combination of explosive growth and really thoughtful, strategic steps along the way in order to advance their ultimate agenda.”
Daniel Schlozman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and author of When Movements Anchor Parties, likened Sunrise’s political advocacy to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That group was led at one point by the late Rep. John Lewis and focused young adults’ energy on civil rights in the 1960s. Scholzman said that it and Sunrise both center “young people making moral claims” as a means to exact political change.
To understand if Sunrise and the youth movement at large can be a force for a general election reckoning, first look to what it pulled off during the 2018 primary season. What the youth movement lacks in the bigger budgets of established organizations like Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters, it makes up for it with enthusiasm and tactics that blend old- and new-school forms of activism and messaging.
Young adults have bird-dogged politicians that oppose climate action or still take fossil fuel money, forcing them to answer hard questions about their records. One of the most notable examples was when a Sunrise member grilled Biden at CNN’s climate town hall about attending a fundraiser hosted by a fossil fuel executive. The group has also employed a phone banking operation run by teens—who won’t even be able to vote—that made 1.6 million calls in support of primary challengers Jamaal Bowman and Charles Booker alone. (Bowman defeated Rep. Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th congressional district and is almost certainly headed to the House, while Booker came up short in his bid to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.)
Perhaps the youth climate movement’s biggest primary win, though, was helping Green New Deal-backing Sen. Ed Markey beat back Rep. Joe Kennedy in a primary challenge, making him the first Kennedy to lose a statewide race in Massachusetts. Sunrise went hard for Markey, including producing one of the best campaign ads so far this election cycle (it racked up 3.8 million views on Twitter) that essentially ethered Kennedy’s last chance at staging a comeback. Not all of this is necessarily the doing of any single group, but it’s given young adults a firm toehold as a force to be reckoned with in electoral politics.
“Markey wins by combining solid support from normie Democrats—a lot of state representatives who don’t want to get challenged themselves who endorsed him quite early—and really, really, really high numbers from young people who are voting more than young people usually vote in primaries,” Schlozman said. “And so that was their claim of, ‘Look, we can defeat a Kennedy in Massachusetts talking about a Green New Deal.’”
Sunrise’s Weber agreed, adding that “now we’re onto the final boss.”
Youth groups will do their best to keep climate change at the top of voters’ minds and continue to turn out millennials and Gen Z voters, a bloc that’s historically tenacious in its inability to make it to the polls in significant numbers. Sunrise will continue its phone banking and has just begun a swing state postcard project with the goal of sending 1 million notes to young voters in those states about how to vote. Group co-founder Varshini Prakash told the Nation this week the group also has a plan to call 2.5 million voters, focusing its efforts on oft-ignored groups in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
“We have a nice setup in North Carolina,” Weber said. “There’s a presidential race and the Senate race there. The state legislature is in focus as well, and that’s important for gerrymandering and democracy more broadly. Sunrise North Carolina has a very exciting slate and down-ballot candidates.”
Those efforts can also connect voters with people who are being directly impacted by climate change in states afflicted by wildfires, heat waves, and hurricanes. Turning out young voters has been an iffy proposition in the past, though there was an uptick in younger voters for the 2018 midterms. Given the level of importance this election will have on their climate future, it could be a recipe for even more youth engagement.
“I don’t think there’s anyone better to tell the story of climate change than young people in the West dealing with wildfires right now,” Nikayla Jefferson, an organizer at Sunrise Movement San Diego and a political science student, said.
Weber said that while the group is doing a lot of traditional get-out-the-vote organizing and outreach, it’s also focused on finding ways to be “as disruptive as possible in a way that gets the media attention, goes viral and helps to shape the story of this election for young people in particular.” That includes showing up outside Sen. Lindsey Graham’s house at all hours to protest his hypocrisy around filling Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s Supreme Court seat in the wake of her death.
If this type of coalition can come together nationally, it could be a major boon for Democrats. Earth Uprising, a group founded by 15-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, is partnering with MoveOn to pressure moderators to ask climate questions at the presidential debates, something that didn’t happen in 2016. They’re also asking for a presidential fact-checker because, frankly, the president lies a lot.
All this is essentially there to remind voters the climate crisis is a top-tier issue, and to remind Biden and other Democrats there’s a major constituency hungry to hear about their climate plans. If we see a spike in the youth vote in the fall along with the so-called “normie Democrats” that deliver Biden the White House and Democrats the Senate (in addition to holding the House), then the jockeying for power could begin in earnest to make climate change the “day one” priority it has to be.
A slew of plans from the Green New Deal to Democratic climate plans from both chambers of Congress, and even the more recently announced THRIVE Agenda, all show Democrats are finally starting to see climate for what it is: an all-encompassing problem. Addressing it means addressing many of the other items on the Democratic agenda, such as fixing infrastructure and getting people back to work in well-paying jobs. The goal for the new climate movement will be getting moderate elected officials to acknowledge that and vote accordingly.
“What radicals do is to give moderates cover,” Scholzman said. “What moderates do is to take advantage of that cover.”
None of this is to say the election is in the bag for Democrats or that the coming weeks won’t be an all-out decathlon for the climate movement to turn out the voters it thinks it can reach. But peeking around the corner, there’s work to be done on the other side of Nov. 3 if things break activists’ way (to say nothing of what needs to happen if Biden loses or Democrats fail to take the Senate).
To that end, Scholzman also said Sunrise’s more aggressive tactics reminded him of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which you may recognize as the acronym in the latter half of today’s AFL-CIO. In the 1930s, strikes and the growing power of the CIO were essential in setting the tone for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Justice Democrats’ Waleed Shahid and Guido Girgenti referred to its founders as “radical realigners” in the Sunrise Movement’s book, Winning a Green New Deal. Scholzman said he sees “no evidence” this is a realignment election—one that radically changes the shape of American politics—but rather a revisiting of a New Deal alignment, with Democrats trying to create a fair playing field for more Americans.
Young climate activists will also need to learn from failures like not getting House Democrats to create a bolder Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, as well as from the possibility that candidates they didn’t endorse due to concerns about their climate record, such as former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, could very well be deciding votes in the Senate. Although the youth movement doesn’t control the means of production the way the CIO did, it’s still envisioning a future where it doesn’t back down from status-quo politicians. It only turns up the heat more.
“Voting is not the end for us here,” Jefferson said. “It’s the first step of a new era; 2020 really belongs to us. Voting is a very small act that will really set the tone for the next 10 years.”
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.