In November 2008, an estimated 22 million young people came out to vote for President Obama.
Believing in hope, change and a variety of progressive policies, these young people not only made history by electing Obama, but also as the third-highest showing of young voters, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Nearly 40 years earlier, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson chose April 22 as the first Earth Day. The specific day, first dubbed “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment,” was selected to ensure maximum possible participation from college students, as it would not overlap with exams or holidays.
Young people today are saying they plan to hold President Obama responsible for his energy and environment record in 2012.
But with gas prices around $4 per gallon, a fragile labor market and a federal budget deficit that should weigh on their shoulders, many other factors may motiviate young voters.
And climate policy might be one of the last things on that voting agenda.
Nevertheless, in recent days, over 10,000 young people gathered in Washington to train leaders in community organizing and to challenge the administration on energy policy as part of Power Shift 2011.
The young climate activists, describing themselves as the “forgotten Obama voters,” heard from former Vice President Al Gore, former green jobs czar Van Jones and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and others over the weekend.
And on Monday, over 5,000 of them gathered for a rally in front of the White House and marched toward Capitol Hill, calling on Obama and Congress to protect the Clean Air Act, reject “dirty energy” sources, and build a clean energy economy.
Organizers of the four-day event said young people are disillusioned with Obama’s slow movement on energy and environment issues.
Following the demise of cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate and this year's push from a Republican-controlled House to upend the EPA's climate rules, young voters were especially disenchanted with Obama’s energy security plan and speech at Georgetown University last month.
“It sounded like something that industry would have written,” said Maura Cowley, co-director of Power Shift, arguing that the Obama’s support of nuclear energy, natural gas, and offshore drilling disappointed many young voters.
The speech prompted an e-mail flurry and “a couple young people said – ‘I just took my `Hope' poster off the wall,’” Cowley said.
Her counterpart, Courtney Hight, co-director of Energy Action Coalition and former Obama campaign staffer, said those disillusioned voters might not show up for the president in 2012.
“We have the votes that brought him in,” she said.
But experts say that Obama’s record on energy issues is neither as bleak as portrayed nor potentially harmful for 2012.
“I don’t know why they should be disillusioned with the guy. He’s doing what he can,” Republican energy strategist Mike McKenna told National Journal.
“The guys blown $100 billion on wind and solar….more than [everybody] else has blown on it combined”
“I think part of being a young activist is that you’re impatient and you should be impatient and we all should be impatient for progress,” added David Axelrod, Obama’s 2012 strategist, saying that progress has been made.
“And there’s no doubt in my mind that whoever is on the other side of the ballet will be much less robust in that regard than us,” Axelrod told National Journal.
“There will be a choice… [and] that will motivate people.”
But the motivation will not necessarily be about climate policy in 2012.
Rock the Vote President Heather Smith said that while candidates shouldn't ignore the concerns of young people, doing so doesn’t mean the youth vote won't show up.
“It’s not ‘We won’t vote for you;’ it’s more ‘We voted for you, so pay attention,’” Smith said.
Though, as the President of Earth Day Network, Kathleen Rogers surely embraces the concept of young people engaged in moving energy and environment policy, she argued that it is a “gigantic mistake” to generalize about young voters.
With young people as the most unemployed age group today, climate change will no longer be the right message on energy issues in 2012, Smith added.
Young voters will be “looking at everything through a jobs lens,” she said. To that end, jump-starting a clean energy economy that creates jobs for these young people will be the most effective way of garnering support for an election campaign.
Jason Skovgard, a senior studying Chemical and Environmental Engineering at UC Riverside, who recently competed with a team for a $75,000 EPA grant, as part of the agency’s People, Prosperity and the Planet Competition, said he “absolutely” wants channel his engineering skills toward developing renewable energy technology.
“I really want to help solve this problem. It’s going to just get bigger,” he said.
Skovgard and teammates Christian Contreras, Marcus Chiu, Steven Chavez, Gregory Hammar, Joon Bok Lee and Trevor Vandergrift created a fuel cell that could generate electricity through a combination of solar power and hydrogen fuel. The University of California Riverside seniors said that they hope to join the clean tech industry when they enter the workforce.
The economic implications of energy policies would resonate most among young people in today’s fiscally focused environment, explained Matt Segal, a young entrepreneur who recently launched Our Time, a membership organization for young Americans.
“It is the most successful argument,” Segal said, adding that the environmental movement would “definitely gain much more momentum when it is tied to an economic argument.”
Amy Harder contributed