President Obama announced an ambitious plan last week to tackle climate change issues. The plan has a goal of reducing carbon pollution from power plants to 2005 levels by 2030 through various options, including cap and trade programs. The New York Times has already called the plan "one of the strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change" and the "defining domestic initiative of Mr. Obama's second term."
Critics of the plan unsurprisingly argue that the proposed rules will lead to loss of jobs in a still anemic economy. But the president's legacy on climate change issues does not just depend on his ability to maneuver past those claims, strike public relations victories and clear any possible legal challenges. It depends on his ability to empower the next generation of leaders.
Climate change is a problem. It's not just killing the polar bears (although there is some evidence that we are on the brink of the world's sixth great extinction). Research shows climate change is linked to increased respiratory diseases. What's more, these diseases are exacerbated in communities of color, which are usually located in places most negatively affected by climate change. African-Americans, for instance, visit the emergency room for asthma at nearly 350 percent the average rate of whites. Yet with one in four Americans still skeptical of the science, it's difficult to believe President Obama's plan has much chance of sticking around. And with ever-increasing climate-related global disasters, this plan won't be enough.
If we want this plan to last, opportunities and answers lie with millennials. The president and the environmental community must do more to invest in this next generation of leaders, who will take up the mantle on climate change solutions.
In a recent poll by Harstad Strategic Research, 79 percent of millennials polled favor carbon pollution reductions to deal with climate change and global warming, compared to only 21 percent who opposed reductions. In a country where 82 percent of Hispanics and 89 percent of blacks support the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and 70 percent of Asian-Americans consider themselves environmentalist, it's not surprising that millennials — the largest and most diverse generation in America — support reducing carbon emissions.
While this progressive, problem-solving generation is ready to tackle climate change issues, we lack representation in our state houses and in Congress — only 8 percent of U.S. Representatives are under 40, compared to 53 percent of the country's population. If the president wants progress on climate change, he must support young people running for public office.
LaunchProgress Action Fund, the organization I co-founded, advocates for young progressives to run for office. We work with local, state, and national allies to identify and encourage youth leaders that represent our changing, diverse America — women, people of color, people from lower-income families, people who are disabled. We work with them to make sure they're not just going to the polls, but they're on the ballot representing youth voices.
But we know that encouraging and getting young people the resources they need to run is not enough. We need to address the financial and structural obstacles young people face before even getting on the ballot.
We need to address the student loan crisis. Most young people are not independently wealthy and they don't start off at positions (if they're employed at all) that allow them to take time off to run a robust campaign. Pile on thousands of dollars in student loan debt and there's no chance they can take the opportunity to run for office.
We need robust public campaign financing programs. Meaningful models already exist. New York City's public financing program matches up to $175 of each contribution at a six-to-one ratio. So, for example, a $25 donation from a private donor is "matched" by public funds and becomes a $175 total donation to a candidate. The program has allowed diverse candidates from underrepresented political backgrounds to run for office and win.
And we need health care. Obamacare represents a start. Young people can now sign up for affordable health care and they can stay on their parent's plans until age 26, which allows for more financial freedom to grab opportunities like running for office. But until every person has access to affordable, high-quality health care, the ranks of the nation's officeholders will remain a millionaires club.
"A low-carbon, clean-energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. America will build that engine. America will build the future, a future that's cleaner, more prosperous and full of good jobs," President Obama said, previewing his climate change announcement.
We agree, Mr. President. If we want a brighter, cleaner future, we must do more to address the financial and structural obstacles standing in the way of a generation of leaders that will build that future.
Poy Winichakul is Co-Director of LaunchProgress Action Fund, which supports young people aged 18-35 running for state or local office.
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