I’m calling it, folks. This is America’s first climate election.
Last year, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee ran for president on a climate platform. Networks like MSNBC featured their first-ever climate town halls. Former Vice President Joe Biden has created a Climate Task Force featuring Green New Deal champions and centering environmental justice. And, of course, Earth’s future rests on how the U.S. addresses the climate crisis over the next four years.
I’ve been encouraged by all the attention on the climate crisis, but it’s still not enough. Remember when we called for a climate debate? That never happened (though the presidential debates did give time to the issue). Biden still won’t commit to banning fracking or phasing out fossil fuels. As for President Donald Trump, well, he’s peddled lies to appear as though his administration cares about the environment. America’s first climate election is also looking potentially like America’s final blow to the planet.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we even dive into politics sometimes. I’m Yessenia Funes, the climate editor at Atmos. This week is all about the presidential election. Disclaimer: I hate politics, but this race may very well determine whether we solve this whole climate emergency thing. More importantly, I’m here to talk about … *drumroll* … voters! They’re the ones who actually matter during this event.
This year has given voters plenty to care about. Still, climate change remains the top issue for Democratic voters. This hasn’t always been the case: Healthcare and the economy have historically taken priority among the majority of voters.
However, for voters of color, climate change has always been a top issue, said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara. That’s because living on the frontlines of the fossil fuel industry has shown them how very real these impacts can be.
“[People of color] understand the cost of our current energy system because the cost is their own children’s lungs,” Stokes told me. “This isn’t a new thing for those communities. That raises the environmental justice issue and suggests that when people see the impacts of the current system, that changes their minds.”
And man, are people’s minds changing. That’s no thanks to cable news networks, which couldn’t even muster the effort to mention the crisis in covering this year’s historic West Coast wildfires or properly fact check candidates on the debate stage. Voters want to see these connections formally made on their nightly news show, according to Data for Progress, but they also are starting to recognize the urgency of the situation despite a failure from mainstream media.
“There have always been youth of color who have been fighting against these injustices for a very long time.”
An August survey found that two-thirds of Americans want climate action. This issue is a priority even among 47 percent of Republicans. Young Republicans, in particular, care a whole lot. After all, it’s their future on the line.
For Corrie Grosse, an environmental studies assistant professor at the College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University, young people have got everything to do with this nationwide reality shift. Their worlds have always featured climate change. Its inescapable presence in their lives has led to an in-your-face attitude among youth who have taken to the streets in a way the world has never seen before.
“[The youth are] coming of age and realizing the crisis that the science predicts, and they’re taking action. We’ve seen unprecedented action through the climate strikes, through folks like Greta Thunberg,” Grosse told me. “There have always been youth of color who have been fighting against these injustices for a very long time… The movement has really changed things and made more people pay attention.”
She and Stokes both agree: This is, indeed, America’s first climate election. As Stokes highlighted, though, all elections are climate elections at this point. This one has only highlighted the power of transformation, of people, of voters. With America’s Great Awakening—on both racial justice and climate change—I have some hope that after Election Day 2020, the U.S. may start to reverse some of the damage it’s done.