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Getting Young People To Vote — And To Think About Climate Change When They Do It

A handful of environmental groups are trying to make the most of an insane election year

If you’re a climate advocate looking to take the worrisome news about ever-increasing average temperatures and devastating environmental disasters and make hot lemon water, courting young people is probably the best place to start — they are the ones who will have to deal with this mess when all the older voters are gone. That’s why NextGen Climate, a super PAC focused on the environment, just announced plans to spend at least $25 million registering college students at 203 campuses in seven states this election cycle. Making climate change an election issue isn’t a problem that can be resolved simply by throwing money and manpower at it, though, which is why this story will not end after this paragraph.

NextGen has been experimenting with ways to make climate change a bigger part of the electoral process for several cycles, with few big successes. Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist who started NextGen, spent more than $74 million during the 2014 midterm election cycle, but only three of the seven candidates supported by the group won. This is somewhat understandable, given that, according to Gallup, just 2 percent of Americans think the environment is the most important problem in America right now. A slightly higher percentage of young people, regardless of political affiliation, think climate change is one of the most important issues our next president should focus on, but worries about rising temperatures have been overshadowed by other issues on twentysomethings’ minds, like student debt, social justice, and underemployment. But that’s not even the biggest problem: Young people often don’t bother voting anyway. According to the census, only 38 percent of the voting-age population aged 18 to 24 cast ballots in 2012.

So how do you not only get young people to vote, but convince them that climate change is something to keep in mind when they’re picking candidates? There are other environmental groups that have been trying to figure this out for years, and they think they’ve learned a few things about how to make the issue more election- and young-people-friendly.

1. Don’t let the depressing nature of climate change suck the joy out of your campaign

If you want people to care about your issue, telling them that it’s too late to undo the terrible damage we’ve unleashed and that humanity is basically a terminal cancer on the Earth will not win you many friends. “A lot of climate messaging has been gloom and doom, which can lead to disempowerment, and people saying, ‘Why even try?’” says Alicia Prevost, executive director of Defend Our Future, a youth-focused spinoff of the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re trying to do things differently.” To that end, the group has made funny videos about why young people who care about the environment should vote. The latest, a partnership with Funny or Die, is called “Old People Don’t Care About Climate Change.”

New Era Colorado is trying the same strategy, except with more costumes. “We’re an eye-catching brand,” executive director Lizzy Stephan says, adding that the group hopes to sign up 50,000 young people this year. When not trying to get local twentysomethings excited about renewable energy and other policy issues, New Era hands out “Vote, Fucker” buttons and “Do It for Democracy” condoms at voter registration booths. College students returning to campus in the fall when early voting starts up can expect to see red carpets outside of campus polling places and golf carts whisking voters to the polls. The group brags that 89 percent of the people it registered in 2008 turned out.

Courtesy of New Era Colorado

2. Make friends with other issues

NextGen Climate is basically setting up a sort of customer service hotline so it can learn the secrets of getting young people to vote from other groups that have been trying to do the same thing. It’s called the Youth Vote Council, and while most of the group’s seven members aren’t focused on climate change in the same way as NextGen, they are trying to reach the same young audience. Staffers at Planned Parenthood, United We Dream, Electing Women Silicon Valley, and a few other organizations are represented on the council. (Disclosure: I went to college with Ben Wessel, NextGen’s deputy political director and a member of the Youth Vote Council.)

The diversity of the council hits home another point that climate groups are trying to address when they reach out to young people. “Showing how climate intersects with other issues is important,” says council member Sarah Audelo, political and field director at Rock the Vote.

This is something that Bernie Sanders stresses in his campaign, too. Climate change has never dominated his message — that honor goes to economic inequality — but he did make an effort to show how protecting the environment was a crucial part of other issues. In his racial justice platform, for example, there is a whole section on environmental inequality, and in his environmental plan, he calls climate change “an economic issue,” “a public-health problem,” and a foreign policy conundrum. Since Sanders’s chances of winning the presidential nomination currently seem less than slim, and since it seems likely that climate change (and many other issues) will get overshadowed in a race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, that puts pressure on these groups to keep making these connections for voters in order for this issue to get any play in this insane election cycle.

3. And don’t forget to make sure that young people actually turn out

“Follow-up is just as important as the event itself,” say Lydia Avila at the Energy Action Coalition, which plans on holding one of its biennial Powershift conferences in Philadelphia during the Democratic convention. “You need young people to feel like they are making a difference right away, especially since our campaigns can take a long time. Years, even.” Fortunately for all of these groups, voting is one of the easiest ways to feel like you’re making a difference — and you even get a sticker for your efforts. Reminders help. In 2014, Defend Our Future had great success in Colorado after having newly registered voters sign pledges, then mailing them out before Election Day as a reminder.

If these groups — and the many other youth civic engagement organizations, like Rock the Vote — are successful, young voters could have an impact on the final election results. Back in February, NPR listed the 10 states where millennials — the largest generation in America right now — could “sway the election.” Six of the states are ones where NextGen will have a presence this year: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire.

But even if they aren’t victorious, Audelo says it’s important to remember that doesn’t mean all is lost. In the climate movement, there are plenty of young people getting involved in college divestment and sustainability efforts at universities and corporations, since politicians haven’t given the movement much to get excited about — especially since some refuse to even acknowledge that the climate might need some help in the first place. “The political arena is stalemated,” says Adam Rome, author of The Genius of Earth Day. “A lot of young people are still involved, just not in the political arena.”

He adds, “Young people are just trying to figure out a way that they can make a difference.” These organizations all want to remind them that voting is one of the best ways to do it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the executive director of Defend Our Future is named Alice Prevost. Her name is Alicia Prevost.