Generation Green

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  May 11, 2009

Twenty years from now, they will make up almost two-fifths of the electorate. If they vote the way they did for Obama, or anywhere close to it, the GOP is effectively finished for the foreseeable future — the first victim of the very global warming that the party has largely refused to acknowledge exists.

Strong stuff
Global warming, more than any other issue, carries an urgency among Millennials of all backgrounds and ideologies. "That's the scary thing, if you work for the RNC [Republican National Committee]," says John della Volpe, who studies this generation at the Harvard University Institute of Politics (IOP). "It absolutely cuts across all the demographics."

"For young people, no issue is more important," says Pat Johnson, a Suffolk University student and president of the College Democrats of Massachusetts. "We are going to have to live with the consequences of inaction."

Conventional wisdom suggests that getting bogged down over environmental legislation would distract Democrats from important issues like the economy and foreign policy. But that shows how little politicians have taken to heart the importance of the Millennials, say Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, co-authors of Millennial Makeover.

To this generation, this fight is not only about climate change — it is about creating green jobs and increasing national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil.

"Millennials feel a real sense of urgency about dealing with the energy and environment," says Teixeira.

For some time now, they have channeled their efforts into activism, particularly on school campuses, where grassroots "going green" efforts (to pressure administrators into adopting energy-saving or recycling practices) are commonplace.

Now, some young voters are starting to take that message to Washington. In March, 12,000 young adults and college students representing PowerShift '09, a coalition of 40 environmental groups, rallied in Washington, DC, to demand green-friendly energy and environmental legislation.

Markey — who spoke at that rally — has held two hearings specifically to hear testimony from young leaders. One of those hearings overflowed the largest congressional hearing room available, says a staffer on Markey's committee, who adds that young adults wearing green PowerShift shirts also packed the recent hearings on the ACES bill.

"Their political weight and their political savvy is growing," the aide says. "And they want the strongest bill."

Choosing sides
In a stance utterly bewildering to most Beltway veterans, Millennials don't necessarily view the environment as a partisan or ideological issue. To them, it's an infrastructure problem, like wanting the New Orleans levees fixed.

That's why even those Millennials otherwise open to the GOP will get turned off if the party opposes climate-change progress.

"The environment can link groups that disagree on other issues," says Hais. "Even young evangelicals."

Indeed, perhaps the most interesting group of Millennials is what della Volpe calls the religious center, which comprise about a fifth of Millennials. Members of that group hold many of the conservative beliefs of older evangelicals: they fear the moral decay of American culture; they disapprove of homosexuality; and they want more religion in public life. Yet on other issues — and particularly on the environment — they are progressive. In particular, they believe in man's biblical responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth.

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