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Are the young at the heart of Biden's election problems? What about climate?

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By Joel B. Stronberg

· 5 min read

The reelection of Donald Trump would be an unmitigated disaster for the environment. Will young voters allow that to happen? Or will they once again step in to help save the Democratic climate agenda?

As always, it's complicated, and it's not at all clear what's likely to happen. It appears, once again, that other pressing issues of the day, e.g., the Middle East, are pushing climate change down the list of voter priorities. The loss of primacy during elections is an old problem for national climate-related policies.

However, the potential loss of the youth vote by a Democratic presidential candidate is new. It could tip the election to the former president, who’s promised to pick-up his dismantling of US environmental and clean energy policies, regulations, and programs where he left off in 2020.

So, what's Biden to do?

The Hill's White House correspondent, Alex Gangitano, writes that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is "emerging as a key surrogate for President Biden's reelection campaign for young people and progressives, pushing his climate agenda as a win for those critical voting blocs." It's not the first time AOC (as Ocasio-Cortez is popularly known) has come to Biden's rescue. Will it be enough to keep a majority of the "youth vote" on the president's side in 2024?

According to Pew Research: "Gen Z and Millennial voters favored Biden over Trump by [margins of] about 20 points, while Gen Xers and Boomers were more evenly split in their preferences. Gen Z voters, those ages 23 and younger, constituted 8% of the electorate, while Millennials and Gen Xers made up 47% of 2020 voters.[i]"  

Biden's concerns about his standing with young voters are not misplaced. An NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll at the end of March 2024 saw Trump beating Biden among millennial and Generation Z Americans. Since Clinton's election in 1992, Democratic presidential candidates have enjoyed a significant advantage among younger voters whose policy priorities—especially climate—have been more closely aligned.

Polls consistently show that an overwhelming number of Americans—over 70 percent—believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. That's a large potential pool of disappointed, disgusted, disaffected, or otherwise exhausted Americans who may have protest on their minds.

There will undoubtedly be voters registering their protest by voting for someone other than their party's nominee. Other protesters will simply stay home.

I understand the desire to register one’s complaint with how things are being done—or were promised to be done but never were. I first voted in 1968. Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie lost that election to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, both of whom werecdestined to resign for lies and corruption that frankly feel a bit tame compared to what's happening today.

Although Nixon will go down in history as one of the most environmentally-responsive presidents, he was a lying, mean-spirited, cheating, devious, and paranoid politician. His number 2 avoided impeachment for the commission of various felonies, e.g., bribery and extortion, in a plea bargain that allowed him to avoid jail time. By the time the dust settled in 1974, Gerald Ford, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, was elevated to the presidency.

Having thugs and liars at the head of government didn't do much for the country's street creds. By the same token, the peaceful transfers of power proved the good health of American democracy.

I cast my first presidential vote for Dick Gregory, a very cutting-edge Chicago comedian and a committed and respected civil rights leader. He managed to get on the Illinois ballot, and I thought him a way to show where my politics were. It was how he held himself out—he was the protest candidate.

Despite believing that Mr. Gregory represented my political position more closely than Senators Humphrey and Muskie, I knew he wouldn't win. I did it anyway to "show" the establishment what I thought of it. Of course, the only people who knew what I did were the ones I told. Thinking back, it wasn't much of a protest—in terms of effectiveness.

I had no illusion that my single vote would change the outcome of that election—saving the nation from the damage done by two politicians who believed themselves special and above the law.

Experience has confirmed that just because something is unlikely

doesn't make it impossible. So, why risk it?

A president isn't always elected by majority rule. There have been multiple times when the winning chief executive lost the popular vote but won the electoral. The first Republican to do so was Abraham Lincoln, who won with only 39 percent of the vote. The last successful presidential candidate who lost the popular vote was Donald Trump. The former president received 45.9 percent of the vote to Clinton's 48 percent. The presence of third parties made a difference in those elections.

As I've gotten older, my thinking about democracy and climate policy has evolved. I'm no longer willing to risk a functioning democracy—as messy as it is—all because of my protest voting or, worse, not voting. Although unusual, one vote can make a difference.

Are you willing to risk the election of someone as likely to seek a blanket pardon for the fossil fuel industry—for the damage it's done to the health of the nation—as he is absolute immunity for himself for any crimes he might commit as the 47th president of the United States?

Surely, there are more effective ways to make your positions and priorities known to political leaders than not showing up to vote or throwing it away on a candidate you don't actually support? I can't go back and correct my mistakes, but you don't need to repeat them.

For climate activists this election year, job number one is keeping the Biden climate agenda alive and building off it for the next four years. There's only one way to do that come November—so get out there and vote wisely.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.

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