The Democratic debate that took place in Houston on Sept. 12 was the third of twelve debate sessions for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Like previous sessions, it began with a certain redundancy as candidates sought to differentiate themselves over healthcare policies. There was, however, very little mention of climate change, which today is regarded as one of the most pressing issues for younger demographics.
According to a recent poll from CNN Politics, among voters under the age of 30, Sanders heads Biden—32 percent to 8 percent respectively. Although not the most represented age group in presidential voting, young people have long been crucial to generating excitement by participating as passionate campaign volunteers, event attendees, and making up an overall advantage in party identification.
Nearly all candidates during the Democratic Debate evoked the legacy of Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act. At one point, the debate even escalated over whose plan was most true to Obama’s vision.
“Barack Obama’s vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered,” Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio, said in an alleged rib at Biden. “He wanted every single person in this country covered. My plan would do that. Your plan would not.”
During the initial election of Barack Obama in 2008, national exit polls conducted by NBC showed that 45 percent of voters aged between 18 and 29 identified as Democrats, compared to the 26 percent who identified as Republican or the 29 percent who identified as independent. However, the Democratic establishment has shown a troubling ineptitude for connecting to young voters.
If Democratic candidates are seeking to regain the faith of young college voters, they must first confront the daunting and very present concerns about climate change. Vague mentions of climate change, zingers, and anecdotal rants as petitions for political appeasement are not sufficient for young voters.
“This is the existential crisis of our time,” Senator Amy Klobuchar said. “It’s—you know that movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow?’ It’s today.”
While politicians recited catchy cultural references, millions of young activists took part in global climate strikes on Sept. 20 and 27, aimed at provoking a sense of urgency at the United Nations Action Summit. According to Vox News, the global climate strike reached historic levels, spanning over 2,500 organized events in 163 countries. This global initiative demonstrated solidarity in the face of the current climate crisis, and a dedication to achieving clean energy.
At Mills College, students expressed some of the same sentiments. In a recent sample poll of 50 Mills students, climate change was found to be the most concerning issue. Students were asked to rank six issues—including climate change, healthcare, immigration, education reform, gun violence and racial equality—from most to least concerning. Climate change ranked number one and two, followed by immigration, healthcare, education, and lastly gun violence.
These issues were comparable to a study of Harvard students who ranked climate change as most important. Defeating Trump was second, immigration was third, the economy was forth, healthcare was fifth, and income inequality followed at sixth.
During the debate, only three candidates seemed to address the issue of climate change in any comprehensive way. Senator Bernie Sanders set the tone for the discussion with an intersectional perspective that resonated well with college students.
“We have got to recognize that this country is moving into an oligarchic form of society where a handful of billionaires control the economic and political life of this country,” Sanders said. “We will finally make sure that every American has health care as a human right, not a privilege. And, yes, we will address the catastrophic crisis of climate change and transform our energy system away from fossil fuel.”
Polls indicate Sanders resonates with young voters in large part because he regularly acknowledges the systemic hold which the wealthy have on policy—a concept which Mills students interviewed have grown aware of and remain disillusioned by. The majority of these students indicated a profound distrust of politicians in the current political environment.
“We’re at a point where even if you don’t like anyone, you kind of have to compromise,” Isabel Pamintuan, a Mills student, said. “I have very strong feelings about our system of government right now. Especially when years back, everyone started finding out about ALEC.”
The America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was exposed in 2012, when an anonymous whistle-blower released a site with about 800 pre-written bills showcasing corporate interests not limited to: anti-immigration, voter ID laws, opting out of greenhouse gas initiatives, and loose NRA policies.
“All these private corporations come together. They write laws that they want to be enacted that will benefit them the most,” Pamintuan said. “So now even when a candidate talks about the public’s best interest, is it really the public’s best interest? Especially now, because so much damage has been done.”
Despite the increased public distrust of presidential candidates, the poll taken at Mills reflects a general inclination for certain policies, such as Medicare-for-All. Bernie Sanders leads a majority by 51 percent and Elizabeth Warren following close behind at 31 percent. Five percent indicated they were not confident enough in their knowledge to make a decision.
Sanders’s statements were followed by detailed ideas from Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke as to how the United States as a country could negate its climate impact. Warren emphasized increased regulation, as well as cuts to carbon emissions from new buildings, automobiles, and the incorporation of clean energy.
“That alone, those three,” said Warren, “will cut our emissions here in the United States by 70 percent.”
For Americans that have long opposed or been intimidated by a broad action plan such as this, their fears have tended to stem from an economic standpoint—particularly the fear of costs and the fear of socialism. O’Rourke seemed to respond to this by approaching instead from an economic standpoint, emphasizing the job value of embracing renewable energy sources.
“We’re going to pay farmers for the environmental services they want to provide,” O’Rouke said.
These three candidates aside, the lack of tangible policy or plans being discussed by the greater body of American politicians reflects a need for concern over the roots of human impact on the global climate.
Thus far, the Green New Deal (GND)—championed by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Deb Haaland and John Lewis among others—has proven to be the most substantial legislative proposal to date combating economic inequality in addition to climate change. Instead of leading an informed discussion, laying out foundational plans, or expanding on the Green New Deal, candidates have turned to pandering.
The fault does not entirely rest upon the candidates themselves; voices within the Democratic National Convention (DNC) have intentionally restricted the debates. In August, DNC members voted 222-137 against permitting single-issue debates, including the issue of climate change. Candidates are also not permitted to appear at forums or stage-events, outside of those sanctioned by the DNC.
The vote by the DNC frustrated students and activists alike. At a time when climate news is bordering on the apocalyptic, news regarding the President can distract from the current issues surrounding climate. The decisions made now by American representative and governing bodies—-beyond impeachment inquiries or day-to-day politics—will have lasting impacts on the future of the poles, oceans, global ecosystems and, ultimately, the youth. Climate change is not just another issue to be swept aside; it is about survival. If Democrats intend to win, they must first nominate the face who best understands what can be lost.