This Election, Vote Your Climate Legacy

By Michael A. Smyer, Ph.D.

It’s pretty clear that older adults will turn out in large numbers for the mid-terms. In the 2016 presidential election, the over 65 group had a turnout rate of 71%, while only 46% of Millennials voted. A similar pattern held in the 2014 mid-term election, when 60% of older adults voted, in contrast to 23% of younger voters.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Turning out older voters won’t be a challenge.

Turning them on to the pressing issue of climate change will be.

Over the last few weeks I have been canvassing for political candidates. We were trained to connect on issues as we knocked on doors. “I am concerned about health care, education, and clean air and water. What are you concerned about in this election?” People willingly shared their worries: health care; taxes; education; a better economy for all:

“I’m worried about my kids’ school; how are we going to make sure they are good?” “I worry about health care- especially for my mom and my babies. How can we afford it?”

But no one-not a single person- mentioned climate change! Older voters, younger voters, women, men, suburban, rural, urban- it didn’t matter. Nobody is talking about climate issues or extreme weather, even in central Pennsylvania which has experienced record levels of rainfall (and flooding) in July and August.

Politicians aren’t focusing on climate change issues either. They’ve read the polls. According to a Pew Research Center released earlier this month, American voters rank climate issues 6th in importance (just behind racism and just ahead of illegal immigration) among the “very big” problems facing the country. A similar pattern emerged in public opinion polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication:

source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Similarly, this month the Gallup organization reported that only 3% of Americans listed the environment/pollution as the most important problem facing the country: that percentage has remained stable between 1–3% over the last several months. It’s as if nothing has changed.

That percentage has remained stable between 1–3% over the last several months in spite of several devastating hurricanes made worse by warming oceans. And in spite of the alarming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report documenting the impact of raising global temperatures beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. Caitlin Wiesen, a United Nations Development Programme country minister summed up the situation: “the time to act is rapidly closing.”

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

“What is your legacy? How do you want to be remembered?”

These questions keep popping up for me as Election Day nears. According to Psychologists Evan Markowitz and Lisa Zaval, asking those legacy questions leads people to be more concerned about climate issues and to take more climate actions. Our research group has recently found that two strategies — one focused on considering your legacy, the other focused on picturing a place you are emotionally attached to- are effective in moving people to take action. Each brings our climate dilemmas down to a personal scale — people and places we care about- and a time frame we can envision (2 or 3 generations). These approaches work for all ages, including both younger and older adults.

What kind of actions can make a change on climate issues?

A first step is to make climate change your top priority in voting. Find out where the candidates stand, even if they haven’t emphasized this issue in the campaign. For example, the League of Conservation Voters provides a site with an assessment of Senate and Congressional candidates, based on their votes on environmental issues.

Second, tell your family members, friends, neighbors — your circles of influence — how you’re voting and why. This may be hard for some people. Whenever I asked my dad whom he voted for, he’ d always answer “The winner.” He grew up keeping his vote to himself. Maybe you feel that way too, but now our elections and our future are too important to keep quiet about.

Photo by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash

Knowing how your neighbors and fellow citizens view climate issues might make it easier to talk about. The Climate Advocacy Lab provides a link to climate public opinion polling by state, county, and congressional district. You’ll see that the majority of Americans know climate change is happening and a majority back public policies to respond.

The third step is to follow through and vote. Make a plan — when and where will you vote. How will you get there? Will you go with a friend or family member? It’s your chance to affect the power of the American government-in policy, in regulation, and in public opinion- on an important issue. So on Tuesday, November 6th, tune in, turn on, and Vote. A healthy planet can be your legacy: pass it on.

Michael A. Smyer, a Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University, is an Encore Public Voices Fellow and the founder of Graying Green: Climate Action for an Aging World.