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Young voters want more action on climate change — even if it hurts the economy

A new poll finds that climate change is increasingly a key priority for younger people as 2020 approaches.

Environmental activists in Chicago protest President Trump’s Paris Climate Accord decision by holding signs that read, “We are the clean energy revolution.”
Demonstrators protest President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate change accord on June 2, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Young voters care about stopping climate change, even if it means hurting economic growth, according to a new poll from the Harvard University Institute of Politics.

“Dealing with climate change is now central to both a domestic as well as a foreign policy agenda of young Americans,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling for the Institute of Politics, indicating that the number who prioritize climate change over economic growth has grown from 32 percent four years ago to 46 percent now.

The Harvard-run poll — which surveyed more than 3,000 voters between the ages of 18 and 29 — shows that young voters are more divided, however, on how they think the problem should be addressed. While 45 percent of those surveyed said they think it’s an urgent crisis, less than a third say they back solutions like those proposed by the Green New Deal.

Democrats were also more likely to feel strongly on the matter, with 63 percent saying they believed climate change was a crisis, while 21 percent of Republicans said the same. The poll overall was made up of 39 percent self-identified Democrats, 23 percent Republicans, and 36 percent who viewed themselves as Independents/Unaffiliated.

The growing focus on climate change could preview an important issue in the lead-up to the presidential election: 73 percent of young voters disapprove of the approach Donald Trump has taken on climate change, and their support is seen as pivotal in 2020.

Young voters are more energized about this primary than the one in 2016

In addition to a heightened focus on particular issue areas, young voters, particularly Democratic ones, are also more engaged in the upcoming presidential election overall.

A higher proportion of young voters have said they’re planning to participate in their state primary or caucus this year compared to the previous cycle. In 2015, 36 percent of voters said they would “definitely” be voting in these races; in 2019, that number has jumped to 43 percent.

It’s a surge that mirrors the spike observed during the 2018 midterms, which saw the highest youth turnout in 25 years, a shift that proved pivotal for Democrats in several key races.

Interestingly, the 2020 increase is predominately being driven by Democrats as well, with 58 percent of Democrats signaling their intention to participate in a state primary this cycle, compared to 44 percent in the last one. Republican voter interest, meanwhile, has seen little change between the two cycles.

The trends in the data could suggest a major increase in voter participation, though as Vox’s Ella Nilsen has noted before, this polling data doesn’t always match up neatly with the actual turnout that’s seen on Election Day:

In 2014, 26 percent said they would definitely vote, a 10-point gap with the 16 percent that actually voted. There was about a 7-point gap in 2010 between the 27 percent who said they would vote and the 20 percent who did.

Youth energy during the 2018 midterms could, however, offer a glimpse of the kind of enthusiasm that may carry over in 2020.

Bernie Sanders is the leading candidate among young voters — despite growing generational tension

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) remains the leading candidate among young voters, a group that was key to his support in 2016 as well. His polling lead in the race — he’s currently coming in with 29 percent of voter support, while former vice president Joe Biden has picked up 18 percent — remains strong despite an emerging tension between younger voters and older generations.

As the survey found, just 16 percent of young voters believe that elected officials of the baby boomer generation (ages 55-73) care about people like them. “So many people feel like they’re not represented by the generation in power right now,” said Iris Feldman, an undergraduate who’s a member of the Harvard Public Opinion Project.

While Sanders, 77, is not actually a baby boomer himself, there is a significant age gap between him and many of his young backers. His commitment to specific values has enabled him to appeal to younger voters despite the age difference, students noted.

“Young people really believe in values and not labels,” said Richard Sweeney, a student who chairs the HPOP. “We don’t fit into the ideological boxes that people have built for us. We’re not a monolith.”

“The issues that Bernie Sanders has raised have uniquely resonated with younger voters: issues on climate, issues on capitalism, issues on health care,” added Della Volpe.

Importantly, students said, it was still very early in the 2020 election cycle — and there’s plenty of room for things to change.

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