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Not Cool

Whatever Happened to Climate Change on the Campaign Trail?

Democrats everywhere ran on climate in 2020. Now they’re practically running away from it.

Illustration by Andrea Ucini

In the 2020 Democratic primary, candidates practically stumbled over themselves trying to explain who would do more to confront the climate crisis. Bernie Sanders won over climate groups with his hulking $16.3 trillion Green New Deal, but even milquetoast centrists like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar pledged at least $1 trillion to ramp up R&D spending on clean energy and expand mass transit—more money for decarbonization than the Obama administration ever countenanced. When Joe Biden eventually clinched the nomination, his campaign saw climate voters as a crucial group to win over, tapping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement—among the most prominent Green New Deal advocates in the country—to help craft his platform.

Two years on, the world looks vastly different. Trillions have indeed been spent, just not on climate. Biden’s proposed climate package ran aground on Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate, where Joe Manchin, a man elected by fewer than 300,000 people, decimated the legislative push of a president elected by more than 80 million: The Build Back Better Act was whittled down to a fraction of its former self, rebranded as the Inflation Reduction Act, and loaded with fossil fuel giveaways. The White House, meanwhile, is preoccupied: With rising gas prices driving inflation as war rages in Europe and the midterms loom, Biden has joined team “Drill, Baby, Drill,” berating oil companies for not producing more. “We are setting records in terms of American energy production,” Biden boasted in June. After he vowed on the campaign trail to end drilling on public lands, his administration issued 34 percent more drilling permits on public lands by the end of his first year than Trump did in his.

Climate groups, accordingly, are experiencing a bit of whiplash. While 69 percent of U.S. adults say the government should prioritize renewable energy over fossil ­fuels, young Democratic voters are especially bullish for climate action: Sixty-two percent say they’d be more likely to vote for the party in November if it passes climate legislation. Organizations trying to bring young voters out to the polls in the midterms will have some trouble pointing to something they can be excited about, even if the IRA scrapes through. In May, Biden had a 27 percent approval rating among Americans aged 18 to 34—far lower than Obama’s 48 percent approval rating among the same group going into the disastrous 2010 midterms. More people under 24 voted in the 2020 election than in any presidential race since 1972, preferring Biden by a 25 percent margin. So what do they have to show for it?

“The bargain we struck is we help get you to office and you deliver on an ambitious climate agenda,” said Sunrise’s Prakash. “The next logical step for winning that election is to capitalize on whatever legislative gains you can make during that presidency and to run in the midterms…. Democrats so far have given us very little to work with.”

The Climate Votes Project—a $100 million effort among six other green groups to boost turnout and elect “climate champions” in the midterms—is mounting ad and in-person field organizing campaigns and door-to-door canvasses to try to bring out climate voters of all ages in battleground states this November. In June, I asked Heather Hargreaves, executive director of one of those groups, Climate Power Action, what its pitch would be to disillusioned young voters. “The exact verbiage is still being developed, but I think the pitch is that the gains that we’ve had in the last few years would have been unimaginable under the last administration,” she said. Asked to elaborate, Hargreaves cited Biden’s executive actions to boost solar manufacturing and the domestic mining of critical minerals needed for electric vehicles, as well as increases in offshore wind leasing and production. “I’m not trying to say that these are the big legislative gains that we’ve hoped to have,” she said, adding that she was “very optimistic that we’re going to get reconciliation passed in the next few months and have something to point to.”

“If we had more people voting and we had youth turning out as other generations do and increased those numbers, we would be able to get more progressive legislation,” Hargreaves told me. “That progress is not going to continue if we sit at home and don’t vote. What you have to do is vote. Get your friends to vote, and get more people to vote.”

Asked the same question, Jocelyn Steinberg, director of NRDC Action Votes—another participant in the Climate Votes Project—paused for upward of 20 seconds. Eventually she explained that, in a state like Michigan (among those the project is targeting), its pitch to all voters might mean “focusing on regulations and legislation,” like fuel efficiency standards. “We can talk about what an [electric vehicle] tax credit could look like. We could talk about what kinds of resources are there to make sure that Michigan can be front and center of what an aggressive climate policy would mean,” she told me, adding that the $1.2 trillion federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in November 2021 “certainly has many important pieces for Michigan.”

A prevailing logic among Democratic Party higher-ups—reportedly popular in the White House, too—is that the party should stick to talking about things that are broadly popular, appealing to the crop of older and more conservative voters who reliably show up to the polls and are key to winning on an electoral map that looks punishingly tough for Democrats in the coming years. Governing also seems to matter, though, and the party has precious little time left in which to do it. Fifty-six percent of under-thirties believe “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing,” according to a poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. Thirty-six percent believe that “political involvement rarely has tangible results.”

There’s been plenty of data to prove their point, and not just on climate. Lack of action on student loan forgiveness (a Biden campaign pledge) and marijuana legalization, for instance—both places where executive action could make real inroads—has left a bad taste in young mouths. “The biggest argument for believing in the Democratic Party enough to get out there and vote for Democratic leaders is to see that the party is serious about governing and passing legislation that makes a concrete difference in the lives of young people. Right now, it’s hard to motivate and mobilize youth voters, in part because many times they feel like the party hasn’t delivered,” Prakash told me. “We need to be able to have something concrete and substantive to show young people who in their entire lives have not witnessed a functional U.S. government.”

Gen Z and millennials already outnumber boomers among eligible voters and will account for 60 percent of the electorate by 2036. The fact that the demographic future of the party is increasingly skeptical that elections will change anything would seem to represent an existential threat for Democrats. Safe candidates slinging safer messaging may well be what wins tight suburban midterm races, yet continuing to fashion the party’s identity around a defense of whatever happens to be popular at the moment doesn’t make for a particularly inspiring governing agenda, or one that could actually help shape public opinion. In theory, Democrats winning enough of those races in that way could secure majorities big enough for the party to pass things. Whether they can do so with a crop of candidates trained to excise any heartfelt beliefs is another matter.

This moment is in some ways the end of a cycle that kicked off more than a decade ago at Occupy Wall Street. If it was an Adbusters email list that helped spark national outrage over wealth inequality in the wake of the financial crisis, it was Sanders’s presidential campaign that convinced some of the same people stirred by those protests to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the dirty work of electoral politics, making phone calls and even a few compromises in pursuit of a vision of the future that looked genuinely hopeful. Propelled by that grassroots energy, Sanders got closer to the White House than anyone thought possible, but lost. And then he lost again. For many reasons beyond its control, the Biden presidency is now making good on his quip to donors that Sanders supporters feared would become reality: “Nothing would fundamentally change.”

However, the country—rocked by more than a million pandemic deaths, regular mass shootings, and a steady drumbeat of climate-fueled disasters—is fundamentally changing. Its political system just is not keeping up. For understandable reasons, 66 percent of people under 40 are pessimistic about the future. Democrats face a daunting catch-22 if they hope to win that extraordinarily large, discouraged voting bloc over and take on the crises of the day: They need more people to vote for them in order to govern, but they also need to govern in order to get more people to vote for them. The window for having something to offer is closing fast.