By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) – The two dozen students who enrolled in air pollution expert James Goldstene’s advanced environmental studies class say they have a deep passion for fighting climate change.
But when it comes to voting in the US presidential elections, many said that climate change was not their main problem.
His priorities ahead of the November 3 election mirror those of the general electorate: the ailing American economy, the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice.
“I know the biggest issue of everyone right now within this class is the environment. And it’s very important to me, but another thing that I feel is more important personally because I’m an African American woman is race,” said Kelia Surrency , 23 years old.
“The environment is 100% important to me, but I need someone in that office who doesn’t see the black community as less than.”
Many in the class at California State University, Sacramento, had trouble finding entry-level jobs or internships in the COVID-ravaged economy, said Goldstene, a former California air pollution regulator.
“With COVID running and many people losing their jobs and struggling, worrying about how things are going to pay. I think that casts a shadow over the climate,” said another student, Enrique Domínguez, 23.
Student views illustrate how climate change, even when an issue of great concern to voters, is overshadowed by other issues.
“Our attention span is limited,” said Joe Arvai, director of the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California. “Unless your house is on fire, you will not experience climate change firsthand.”
Only 7% of likely voters age 34 and younger cited the environment and climate as their top concern when choosing a president, according to a Reuters / Ipsos poll conducted between September 29 and October 13. Among likely voters of all ages, only 4% prioritized the climate and environment.
By comparison, COVID-19 was the top concern for 25% of young voters, while jobs and the economy were named for 20%. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/37c3oCk)
However, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has made climate change a campaign priority, his campaign said.
The campaign sees young voters as important to Biden’s chances of winning the election, a major challenge given the low turnout from the demographic. In 2016, turnout among voters under age 30 was about 46%, according to the US Census Bureau. By comparison, 71% of those over 65 voted.
Aware of voters’ concerns about the economy, public health, and systemic racism, Biden’s campaign has wrapped environmental issues in a broader discussion of green jobs and a healthier environment.
“When you look at a really deep problem like the weather, there is no way to separate it in your solution from the interconnected and overlapping problems like job creation, economic growth, prosperity and also health,” said climate activist and billionaire Tom Steyer, who is advising Biden on environmental issues.
Biden has backed a $ 2 billion plan to promote clean energy and repair infrastructure.
His campaign has launched several digital ads targeting young people that mention the weather, mainly in the context of other issues. An online youth engagement meeting focused primarily on jobs and the economy.
Biden’s campaign ran a television ad focused exclusively on the weather, but it was aimed at farmers rather than youth.
“Joe Biden recognizes that our country is grappling with four intersecting crises – the raging pandemic, economic collapse, persistent racial injustice, and the existential threat of climate change – and that is exactly why he has outlined an integrated, ambitious and bold to ensure that we address these crises together, “said spokesman Matt Hill.
President Donald Trump has tried to frame Biden’s climate plans as a radical left-wing agenda that would cost too much and hurt economic growth. On the contrary, his campaign has said that he will continue to ease trade restrictions to boost the economy.
His campaign has also invoked the environment, arguing that Trump’s pro-industry policies have led to lower carbon emissions.
“President Trump’s record on the environment shows that you can have energy independence and a clean and healthy environment without destroying the economy, overregulating or overburdening American taxpayers,” said Trump spokeswoman Samantha Zager. “The president will continue to rely on innovation and competition policies.”
The emissions reductions seen by the Trump campaign were driven in large part by the retirement of coal plants. Air quality also continued to improve under Trump following the same trajectory as in previous Republican and Democratic administrations.
It would be wrong to ignore the concerns of young voters about the environment, said Ben Wessel, director of the youth outreach group NextGen America founded by Steyer. Stronger campaign messages on climate could draw more young voters to the polls, he said.
That could be the case for 24-year-old Goldstene student Michaela Gallagher. Alarmed by climate change, she says she is leaning toward voting Democrat because she feels he will do more than Trump for the environment. But you could also vote for a third party candidate or skip the vote.
“I’m crazy about it,” she said.
Graphic: Issues America’s Young Voters Care About: https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ELECTION/YOUNGVOTERS/xlbvgworgvq/
Graphic: Biden and Trump’s position on key issues: https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ELECTION/POLICY/ygdpzwarjvw/index.html