Opinion

Want Lasting Climate Change Solutions?

It’s time to elect a new generation of policy makers.

Poy Winichakul is co-founder and co-director of the LaunchProgress Action Fund.
National Journal
Poy Winichakul
June 12, 2014, 1:15 a.m.

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.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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