Climate advocates want to solve their ‘biggest problem’ in the US: Turning out voters

ABC News

In battleground states across the country, environmental activists like Dr. Emily Church are canvassing on behalf of an organization called the Environmental Voter Project in an effort to turn out people who care the most about climate change — but who haven’t shown up for past elections.

During a recent effort in Pittsburgh, Church, a biology professor who leads local canvasses for the project, recalled to ABC News how she used to lobby lawmakers directly to take action on climate change, but they told her voters don’t care about the issue.

She said she’s now trying to prove them wrong.

“The people who prioritize climate and the environment need to show up,” Church said. “That’s how we’re going to get anything done.”

The Environmental Voter Project, or EVP, is targeting very specific individuals: registered voters who list climate change as their No. 1 issue but who are unlikely to cast ballots in November’s election based on their voting history.

“Our biggest problem in the climate movement right now [is] we don’t have enough voting power,” EVP founder and executive Nathaniel Stinnett said.

EVP takes a targeted approach to door knocking, Stinnett explained. Using polling, the group first determines which registered voters in a particular area, like Pittsburgh, would rank climate as their top voting issue. They then cross-reference profiles with voting records to find people who have not come out to the polls recently or regularly.

By Stinnett’s accounting, the group has been successful across general elections, primaries and even in local races.

“We’ve sometimes increased turnout by as much as 1.8 percentage points in general elections, 3.6 points in primaries and 5.7 points in local elections,” he said, noting that while 1.8 percentage points might sound small, it could determine an election. Pennsylvania, for example, was only won by President Joe Biden in 2020 by 1.17%.

For the canvassing effort in Pittsburgh, Stinnett said EVP targeted people who didn’t vote in the 2020 election or elections in the years since. He added that they identified 22,135 voters in the city who are highly likely to rank climate as their top priority but unlikely to vote in November.

The group claims nonpartisanship but acknowledges that right now it’s Democrats working on climate change almost exclusively. One of their hopes is to bring more Republicans to the table, too.

“We want to scare the bejesus out of as many politicians as possible, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on, until they think, ‘You know what, the only way I can win elections is if I start recognizing the biggest crisis,'” Stinnett said.

Over time, climate change has become a more salient voting issue. In 2010, only a slim majority of Americans agreed that global warming was occurring, according to polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Now, 72% of Americans agree.

But climate is currently not one of the biggest motivators for people this election cycle, surveys have indicated — though climate advocates hope to change the electorate by encouraging turnout of climate-concerned voters.

According to a February poll by the Wall Street Journal, registered voters listed immigration (20%), the economy (14%), abortion (8%) and democracy (8%) as their top issues. Climate change ranked 11th, with 2% of voters choosing it as their top issue.

More broadly, Gallup’s tracking of what Americans say is the country’s most important problem over time shows climate, pollution and the environment at 2% in March, far below economic issues and immigration.

Polling has also shown that in addition to a partisan divide on the issue, a generational shift may be at play.

“Young voters in general tend to be more Democratic, and that is kind of tied up inextricably with their belief that climate is really important,” said Nathaniel Rakich, a senior editor and senior elections analyst at 538. “So if Republicans don’t want to basically be losing this upcoming electorate by large margins for decades to come, they’re going to have to eat into that Democratic support by at least proposing some solutions and addressing climate change.”

Even the Biden administration, which has prioritized fighting climate change, is being pushed by progressives to do more on the issue.

Twenty-one activists with the environmental advocacy group Sunrise Movement were arrested outside of Biden campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, in February. That group and other advocates have additional demonstrations planned in the run-up to the November election.

“I think there were some missteps by the administration — permitting the Willow project in Alaska was a step backwards. That was unfortunate,” Evergreen Action Executive Director Lena Moffitt said, referring to a large-scale oil drilling initiative backed by Alaska lawmakers and others in the state for its economic value, but which environmentalists criticized as undercutting the White House’s climate goals.

“We know that we need to move away from fossil fuels and, at the same time, the administration is doing a lot to hasten that move away from fossil fuels,” Moffitt said.

The choice for voters in November, on the issue of climate, is stark. President Biden has spoken urgently of the dangers of not slowing climate change and has pushed renewable energy solutions, backed electric vehicle infrastructure and created a new Climate Corps to train and expand the environmental workforce.

Biden last week finalized new protections against oil and gas production for some13 million acres of land in Alaska and, through the Environmental Protection Agency, has imposed aggressive emissions standards for vehicles to cut future greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump, who has long questioned climate science, without evidence, has opposed Biden’s clean energy policies and promised to roll them back — arguing they are a drag on the economy and make the U.S. less competitive and independent.

“The fact is President Biden has done more to address climate change than any president in U.S. history. And there’s a lot more to be done,” Moffitt said. “Scientists have said that we still can avoid the worst of the worst of the climate crisis. But what we do in these next few years is essential to which path we choose.”

Stinnett agreed, telling ABC News that too often Americans have been told to focus on their own individual habits rather than government policy.

“[Politicians say,] ‘Hey, don’t pay attention to that coal-fired power plant back there. Instead, it’s all your fault for having a plastic water bottle in your hand.’ And we bought it. We bought it hook, line and sinker,” he said. “In truth, it is far more of a political and a systemic problem that needs political and systemic solutions.”

In Pittsburgh, Church said that despite the difficulty in getting new, environmentally minded voters to the polls, she thinks the challenge is worth it.

“The science is very clear. So we know what we need to do,” she said, “it’s just a matter of getting it done.”

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