- The climate crisis affects young people most, but older generations are deciding the planet’s future.
- Not all see the generational divide on climate as an impediment to progress.
- “I’m not young. I’m not old. I worked my fucking butt off,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, 68.
When a group of young climate activists confronted Dianne Feinstein at her San Francisco office in 2019, the six-term Democratic senator cited her deep experience in Washington in refusing their demand that she endorse the Green New Deal.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing,” Feinstein, then 85, told the students. “You come in here and you say, ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that. I’ve gotten elected, I just ran, I was elected by almost a million-vote plurality, and I know what I’m doing. So, you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.”
Feinstein added that the Green New Deal, a package of aggressive environmental reforms championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, would die at the hands of Senate Republicans.
“You can take that back to whoever sent you here,” the senator told Isha Clarke, a 16-year-old student from Oakland.
One student protested that Feinstein should instead listen to her constituents.
“You didn’t vote for me,” Feinstein chided.
“It doesn’t matter,” a 10-year-old named Magdalena shot back. “We’re the ones who are going to be impacted.”
A video of the exchange — recorded the same year Time magazine named the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg its “person of the year” — went viral.
Clarke, now a sophomore at Howard University and cofounder of Youth vs. Apocalypse, told Insider the protest got a “huge reaction” from the public.
“We are literally facing the end of humanity and politicians are like, ‘Sorry, no can do’ in the face of people who it’s going to impact,” Clarke said.
The nonbinding Green New Deal resolution, meanwhile, went nowhere — just as Feinstein predicted.
The episode illustrates the tension between the nation’s youngest Americans, who are demanding political action on a huge scale to fight the planet’s climate crisis, and aging government leaders who don’t share their sense of urgency.
After decades of failure, Democrats finally managed to do something to address the biggest challenge facing the planet. In August, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill that contained significant environmental provisions, including incentivizing clean energy and reducing carbon emissions with more than $300 billion in direct investments and tax credits.
But the bill — dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act — proved to be a compromise package that failed to even acknowledge the climate crisis in its name. Some environmentalists derided it as a half measure at best, counterproductive at worst. And the law is insufficient to reach the Biden administration’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century in order to curb the worst effects of climate change, including rising temperatures, warming oceans, rising sea levels, and more intense storms and droughts.
With Democrats bracing to lose their razor-thin majority in the House and a challenging 2024 election-season looming, the party will need to energize younger voters and empower a new generation of leaders to build on its partial climate wins — all while many aged leaders simply refuse to yield.
‘An unforgiving generation of voters’
Climate change is a uniquely generational issue.
There’s a clear age divide — particularly among Republicans — when it comes to addressing it. Millennials and Gen Zers across the political spectrum are more likely than their parents and grandparents to support climate action. They’re better educated on the issues, and they’re more open to structural change. They also have much more at stake — older people will likely be dead before planet Earth experiences the most severe impacts.
Lawmakers are increasingly aware that younger constituents will hold them accountable on climate.
“I hear Republican senators say, ‘If we don’t clean up our act on climate, we are going to lose the next generation of voters for our party,'” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and champion of climate policy, said. “Anybody who has political sense understands that there is an unforgiving generation of voters coming along that is gonna be very pissed that we allowed this to drift for 20 years when we knew better.”
But today’s American political leadership is old and only getting older.
About one in four members of Congress are in their 70s or 80s, including octogenarian leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The average member of Congress is more than two decades older than the average American. Biden and his leading 2024 adversary — Donald Trump — are both nearing 80. Young people vote far less frequently than older folks and are often shut out of elected office by a slew of incumbency advantages and veteran lawmakers who refuse to step down.
Four months in the making, Insider’s “Red, White, and Gray” series explores the costs, benefits, and dangers of life in a democracy helmed by those of advanced age, where issues of profound importance to the nation’s youth and future — technology, civil rights, and, yes, energy and the environment — are largely in the hands of those whose primes have passed.
Historically, environmental action takes place when young people overwhelmingly demand it and leaders listen.The US passed its bedrock pieces of major environmental legislation back in the early 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, a conservative who privately derided the environmental movement but respected the power of grassroots activism in changing public opinion.
Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, and established the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other major environmental achievements.
“It’s not that Nixon was an environmental guy, it’s just the public demanded it and the energy came from younger people,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University whose forthcoming book digs into the environmental movement of the 1960s. “The climate revolution that’s needed — it’s there, they’re organizing online, but it has to become a tidal wave where it dominates.”
The generational divide on climate
Age — particularly among conservatives — is a key divider in Americans’ views on climate policy.
Almost half – 47% – of Republicans and Republican-leaning people between the ages of 18 and 29 think the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, but fewer than one in five Americans aged 65 and older said the same, according to a Pew Research Center poll from May. There’s a similarly wide gap on many climate-related issues, from whether energy companies should transition to more renewables to whether stricter environmental laws are worth the cost.
Younger Democrats were also more likely to be frustrated by the Biden administration’s action on climate than their older counterparts, Pew’s polling found before the IRA was passed.
But US political leadership doesn’t look like America, and older people tend to vote much more frequently than younger people, thus skewing national priorities away from climate. And the electorate is only getting older.
Generational gaps on key public-policy issues aren’t specific to climate change. Older voters are generally less likely than younger people to support dramatic policy shifts and structural change. They’re more rigid and concerned with preserving their economic stability, while millennials and Gen Zers have fewer expectations of stability, Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern University, said.
“Younger people see kind of an inevitability about change,” Stephens said. “They know the world isn’t gonna just stay the same, and we can either respond to these changes in crisis mode, in reaction to once things start happening, or we can also advocate for being more proactive and preparing for the changes.”
But most policy debates aren’t genuinely existential in the way climate change is. From heat waves to droughts to floods, people born in 2020 will experience between two and seven times more extreme-weather events in their lifetimes than people born in 1960, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Science.
Millennials and Gen Zers, in particular, have benefited from more education and better information about the crisis. For years, older Republicans were shaped by partisan, fossil-fuel-backed claims that climate science was bunk, that climate policy could only be achieved with overwhelming economic costs, and even that climate change was a hoax devised by China to strangle American manufacturing, as Trump falsely claimed in 2012.
“What it comes down to for older Republicans is they’re fearful of policies coming for their jobs and coming for their families’ livelihoods,” Benji Backer, the 24-year-old founder of the conservative climate-action organization American Conservation Coalition, said. “Young people grew up in a time where we learned about how fighting climate change didn’t have to be at the expense of the economy.”
Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who was ousted from Congress in 2010 in part over his support for a carbon tax, agreed that the GOP’s decades of anti-climate messaging has deeply influenced older voters.
“Talking points are slow to die,” he said.
Lawmakers and the generational gap
Politicians’ views are also shaped by these generational trends.
Inglis said he was a climate skeptic until his then-18-year-old son, Robert, told him in 2004, “Dad, I’ll vote for you, if you’re going to clean up your act on the environment.” He later visited Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef with congressional colleagues, met with scientists, and saw evidence of climate change with his own eyes.
As a general matter, older politicians tend to approach the climate crisis with less urgency. Julian Brave NoiseCat, a writer and climate activist, pointed to Ocasio-Cortez, the country’s youngest-ever congresswoman, who’s put climate at the center of her policy agenda and embraced left-wing climate activists.
“She goes full-throated activist on the climate issue, which is obviously not the way that older Democrats tend to do it,” NoiseCat said of the progressive lawmaker. “Younger Democrats tend to have a much more friendly relationship and response to the party’s activist class than older Democrats do.”
A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez declined to make the congresswoman available for an interview for this story. But the lawmaker recently told GQ that “generational tension has existed among virtually every single social movement in American history.”
But there are exceptions to the young-old disconnect on environmental issues, particularly on the left. Elderly Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey are among the most outspoken advocates.
“There’s this misconception that in order for an elected official to be responsive to and understanding of young people’s concerns, they need to be young themselves. I just don’t think that’s true,” said Marcela Mulholland, the political director at the left-leaning think tank and polling firm Data for Progress, pointing to Sanders and other older progressive Democratic leaders.
But, she added, there should be far more young leaders in positions of power.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said the real divide on climate is a partisan one and questioned how crucial activists were in securing the climate wins in the reconciliation bill.
“I’m not young. I’m not old. I worked my fucking butt off last year and this year,” the 68-year-old lawmaker said outside the Capitol after the House voted to pass the Inflation Reduction Act on August 12. “People need to make their voices heard and keep their foot on the pedal, but I also think sometimes you gotta have people that are willing to do the work to make it happen.”
Dingell, who succeeded her late husband, Rep. John Dingell, after his nearly 60 years in Congress, has faced pressure from progressive activists to take bold action on climate. She and her late husband spent much of their careers supporting the auto industry, a major player in their home state.
The role of fossil-fuel interests
Lawmakers’ positions on climate issues are also heavily influenced by their constituents’ beliefs and donors’ financial interests. Ultimately, most politicians will do what they can to get reelected.
“It behooves a leader of whatever age to mostly pay attention to high-propensity voters” who are disproportionately older and less concerned with the climate, Inglis said.
Fossil-fuel interests have played a central role in stymieing progress on climate change for decades. Many experts argue their power intensified following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates to corporate and outside spending in elections and empowered the oil and gas industry and other interests to more effectively oppose climate legislation.
This year, the oil and gas industry and electric utilities are among the top-five spenders by industry on political lobbying, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.
“Right now, politicians of any age are responding to the possibility of getting reelected, and there are two factors there: One, how do their constituents feel? And two, how subject are their constituents to the massive expenditure of money in the political arena?” Michael Oppenheimer, a prominent climate scientist and professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, said.
During the past 15 years, the Republican Party has taken a sharp turn to the right on climate.
In 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Republican leader Newt Gingrich sat on a couch outside the Capitol and filmed a TV ad calling on Americans to “take action to address climate change.”
Nearly a decade later, Trump ran for and won the presidency — with Gingrich’s early and staunch support — while calling climate change a “hoax.”
Many Republicans in Trump’s GOP have embraced that position.
Rep. Bob Good, a Virginia Republican, declared, “There is no climate crisis. It is a hoax,” while railing against the Inflation Reduction Act on the House floor in August.
Matt Schlapp, the head of the Conservative Political Action Coalition, put it simply in a May tweet: “I don’t give a crap about climate change.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia argued in June that climate change and carbon emissions are actually “healthy for us” and good for the planet.
Thirty Republican senators and 109 Republican representatives in the 117th Congress have openly questioned or denied the science of human-caused climate change, according to a 2021 report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Those members have taken a total of $61 million in donations from the oil, gas, and coal industries during their careers, the report found.
“It’s impossible to deny the power of the fossil-fuel industry carrot-and-stick in the behavior of the Republican Party. I’ve seen it in my time in the Senate,” Whitehouse said. “We went from having multiple bipartisan, good, strong climate bills to having none. And it happened instantly upon the Citizens United decision.”
Most of that money goes to Republican lawmakers. GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitt Romney have, in their respective chambers, collected the most lifetime donations from people and political committees associated with the oil and gas industry, according to OpenSecrets.
But a slew of Democrats also rake in cash from fossil-fuel interests while also investing their own money in fossil fuels.
Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the most influential shapers of the IRA, were the only two Democrats among the top 15 Senate recipients of oil and gas money during the 2022 election cycle, OpenSecrets reported.
Backer, the American Conservation Coalition founder, argued that younger Republican lawmakers are taking climate change much more seriously than their older peers. He pointed to Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, Dan Crenshaw of Texas, and John Curtis of Utah, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, among others.
“I would say almost every member of Congress that’s Republican under 50 really gets it on climate,” Backer said. “These are people who span the spectrum of conservative to moderate, but they’re all younger, and they all care about climate and they’ve all done stuff about it.”
But even younger legislators who’ve made it to Congress are often prevented from holding positions of real power in the chamber for years as older leaders hang on. Most committee chairs — particularly in the Democratic Party, which doesn’t have term limits for leadership — are baby boomers or members of the silent generation, a cohort whose members were born between 1928 and 1945.
“If you’re a young legislator, like Jamaal Bowman, or AOC, or Rashida Tlaib, they have to sit and wait for like 20 years to be chairperson of a committee and have the ability to move legislation that actually is the thing that goes to the floor,” said Brett Hartl, the director of government affairs at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that advocates for endangered species and other environmental causes. “That’s gonna feel pretty damn hopeless.”
Young people are critical to the fight
Some climate activists describe a duality of the Inflation Reduction Act: It’s both unprecedented in scope yet still an incremental step in the right direction.
The law has received largely positive reviews from climate experts, who praise the more than $300 billion in tax credits for electric vehicles and solar energy and investments in forest and coastal restoration and pollution reduction, among other priorities.
If implementation goes as planned, the law would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, short of the 50% reduction for which the US is aiming.
But many are still demanding bolder action to reach both domestic and international climate goals.
“The IRA is completely insufficient,” Hartl said. “Almost anything and everything the Biden administration has done thus far, from an EPA side of things, has been insufficient. It’s not going to get any easier. The more we delay and procrastinate and the more half measures just dig us deeper into the hole.”
But there’s no sign older voters and lawmakers will allow a new generation of lawmakers and climate advocates to take over.
Whitehouse argued that the GOP and its conservative allies have systematically worked to disempower younger voters, and thus hurt Democrats and progress on climate.
“I am concerned that there are interests at work in American politics who would very much like to turn off young voters and make the government process so unappealing to them that they don’t show up,” Whitehouse said. “And I think it’s very clear that there is a political equation, and that is: High young-voter turnout equals larger Democratic Party majorities. And its corollary is, larger Democratic Party majorities means stronger climate legislation.”
While environmental crises of years past have certainly posed tremendous challenges, they pale in comparison with the disaster that climate change could wreck on the planet if it’s not swiftly addressed. The crisis is urgent, and younger generations simply don’t have a decade — or even a few years — to lose.
Four years before Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992, Dr. James Hansen of NASA famously testified before Congress that greenhouse-gas emissions were causing global warming. In the 30 years since, Feinstein and her colleagues failed to take significant actions to slow climate change.
While the Green New Deal is far from becoming law, it heavily influenced the Biden administration’s original $3.4 trillion Build Back Better plan, which effectively served as an opening bid in Democrats’ internal bargaining that ended with the scaled-back IRA.
Just as the young climate activists in Feinstein’s office demanded, progressive Democrats used the ambitious framework to shift the Overton window and push their own party to think bigger.
“I’m very hopeful and I do think it’s possible to do the sort of radical intervention that we need,” said Clarke, the student activist and Feinstein protester who’s now 19 years old. “I’m a true advocate for maintaining radical optimism.”
“You have to shoot for the stars, land on the moon,” Clarke added. “Throughout time, people have not gained the progress that they have by aiming to compromise.”