Can the Midterm Elections Help Solve the Climate Crisis?

Over the past 10 years, Gavin Healy, a senior at the University of California–Berkeley, has seen his hometown in the Lake Tahoe area of Northern California—once a lush, green place—turn brown. A nearby lake is completely drained from a decades-long drought, and uneven water restrictions have created a patchwork landscape. Most summers, fires have brought with them destruction and dangerous air quality. Just last year, a wildfire forced Healy and his family to evacuate their home. Recalling one fire season in 2018, he said, “I remember the sky being completely black, and you can’t breathe, and I’d be walking home for three or four miles, just casually going, and I’d be like, ‘OK, like this is like the most ridiculous thing ever.’”

Now, Healy is one of millions of young people eligible to vote in the upcoming midterm elections (over 8 million of whom are newly eligible voters under 20 years old). As a young person directly affected by climate change, he’s not alone. In just this past summer, young people across the country—and the world—have faced record-breaking hurricanes and an intense and lengthy fire season.

The fall 2022 youth poll from the Harvard Public Opinion Project showed that “climate change is in the top tier of issues for young Americans heading into the midterms,” Alan Zhang, a junior at Harvard University and the chair of HPOP, points out. “If we’re looking at young liberals and young progressives [specifically], there’s really four issues tied for first place: There’s abortion, inflation, climate, and democracy.”

With the 2022 midterms just around the corner—and new data from the Harvard youth poll suggesting that young people are going to match record-breaking turnout levels from 2018—the question of whether Gen Z will turn to the polls as a solution to the climate crisis remains. The answer, however, is complicated.

“I think electoral politics are quite important,” said Kevin J. Patel, a 22-year-old climate activist and founder of the nonprofit One Up Action. In 2020 as now, Patel believes voter engagement efforts and high voter turnout are necessary priorities for climate organizations, activists, and concerned young people alike. “If we don’t have leaders who are acting on the climate crisis,” said Patel, “we will never see the bills, we will never see the policies, we will never see the solutions that we as young people want to get passed or even implemented within our communities.”

Sophia Kianni, a fellow climate activist and the founder of the multilingual climate education organization Climate Cardinals, agreed. Though elections and electoral politics are by no means the only solution, they remain “a viable avenue for making change happen.”

Like Healy, the Washington, D.C., resident has experienced worsening air quality almost comparable to that of her parents’ home country of Iran, where Kianni said she “witnessed the impacts of oil and gas pollution firsthand.” A focus on voting, then, she said, “is one of the best ways that we can champion individual action instead of telling people to focus on their personal carbon footprint, which is really ineffective and kind of playing into what the fossil fuel industry wants.”

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