The 50th anniversary of Earth Day comes during a big election year. And much more is at stake than politics — the future of the planet weighs on how people vote.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have 10 years to halve carbon emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe. But with world leaders dragging their feet, we’re heading the wrong way.
Nearly every country in the world has failed to meet goals set by the Paris Climate Accord, the international agreement to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” this century.
But not all is hopeless.
“I think that will build up a fairly strong constituency, and if we pull our act together, we can mobilize to reverse anything and stop anything not yet completed,” said Denis Hayes, the coordinator of the first Earth Day, in a recent interview with Earth Day Network.
Pulling our act together means showing up at the ballot box: People around the world must vote for candidates that support climate and environmental legislation.
American environmental support has been rising since the 2016 United States presidential election — in February, the Pew Research Center survey showed that nearly as many Americans say protecting the environment should be a top priority (64%) as strengthening the economy (67%).
That, however, was before the novel coronavirus upended the U.S. Now, unsurprisingly, American priorities are shifting. Polls after primaries in Florida, Illinois and Arizona last month saw concern over climate change fall well behind the economy and income inequality.
But many people and organizations are working to ensure climate is still at the forefront of this election year. Earth Day Network is launching 24 hours of action on Earth Day, featuring voting, as well as the organization’s campaign Vote Earth, prominently in its programming.
“As voting citizens, we can drive change by making our voices heard,” said Will Callaway, Earth Day Network’s national campaign director. “The ballot box can be the best solution to political inaction.”
Despite social distancing mandates and large gathering bans, organizations are getting creative with encouraging others to vote.
“As a result [of the coronavirus pandemic], we have switched to using more innovative ways to engage young people digitally,” said climate activist Jerome Foster II in an email, citing YouTube videos, podcasts and live streams. “We can and will energize and educate via our influencer partners and empowering videos.”
Foster is the founder of OneMillionOfUs, a nonprofit with a mission to mobilize one million young people to vote in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. A successful 2020, to Foster, means one million young people voting against “the elected officials who are currently making decisions… that are destructive to our future.”
Those young people’s votes are crucial to electing a legislature that takes climate seriously. A recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 80% of voters between ages 18–29 saw climate change as a “major threat” to humanity.
The challenge will be turning those worries into votes. In 2018, college voting doubled, compared to the previous mid-term election in 2014, according to a recent study by Tufts University. So, the real question is if that momentum can keep up in 2020.
“Young people must vote and they listen to other young people. It’s the key,” said Tracy Marshall, who sits on the board of OneMillionOfUs, in an email.
With the pandemic driving demonstrations online, Earth Day will be much different this year. But the day is still coming at a crucial point for the planet. By capitalizing on the momentum of the environmental movement and voting for the right leaders, we can create a more sustainable future.
“COVID-19 robbed us of Earth Day this year,” wrote Hayes in the Seattle Times, this month. “So let’s make Election Day Earth Day… This November 3, vote for the Earth.”
By Brandon Pytel and Reprinted from Earthday.org, the originator of Earth Day.