It’s no secret that climate change and the environment are some of the hottest topics in political discourse today. From the moment young people began working to put on the first Earth Day in April 1970, they have been at the forefront of the environmental movement.
In more recent years, young activists have assumed leadership in the climate change movement. From Greta Thunberg and Jamie Margolin to my boss, Benji Backer, young activists have not only made their voices heard, but they’ve enacted real change. This activism has generated a ripple effect in Washington, with more and more politicians – especially those who have traditionally been shy on climate issues – stepping up and taking action, often working across the aisle to do so.
So, it’s no wonder that a recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that 69% of Millennials and Gen Z believe “climate should be a top priority to ensure [a] sustainable planet for future generations.” Notably, 49% of Gen Z and 48% of Millennial Republicans, including those polled who merely lean toward Republican ideologically, say action to reduce the effects of climate change needs to be prioritized today.
For young Americans, climate change isn’t an afterthought or a challenge they’d like to solve one day; it’s an issue they want to make progress on right now. Regardless of partisanship, climate ranks high on their list of priorities. Young conservatives have pushed the Republican Party from a place of denial or silence to a place of acceptance and action over the past several years.
Last year was a watershed moment for conservation and energy legislation. The Great American Outdoors Act and The Energy Act of 2020 were both historic bills that addressed challenges to our national parks system and streamlined regulation to spur innovation, respectively. Without the young activists pushing for these bills to move through the legislative process, they may never have reached former U.S. President Donald Trump’s desk.
Already this year, Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, released the Energy Innovation Agenda, a set of bills that would fight climate change through technological innovation and using the natural solutions we have at our fingertips. Similarly, new voices in the Senate are joining the climate fight. For example, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville both cosponsored The Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would empower farmers to enter carbon markets and naturally sequester carbon emissions. In addition, local officials across the country, like Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, are making climate change a mainstream issue for Republicans, going as far as to organize their communities around the cause.
Last month, Republican members in the House, led by Congressman John Curtis (UT-03), formed the Conservative Climate Caucus as an educational platform for Republicans to talk about environmental issues like climate change.
This political momentum isn’t a coincidence. Young people are motivated on this issue because they can see the effects of climate change taking place right now in their communities and know they can change the culture. A poll by Tufts University found that 83% of young people said they believed they have the power to change the country ahead of last November’s election. Fast forward almost eight months later, and they have.
The year 2021 is primetime for environmental action. There is an abundance of opportunities to make a difference, whether in energy innovation, break-through technologies, using our ecosystems to sequester more carbon naturally, or increase U.S. leadership abroad. There’s no doubt that young activists have been instrumental in the progress made so far. There are surely opportunities in the future to advocate for legislation and support candidates who will prioritize environmental issues for their constituents once in office.
Stephen Perkins is the vice president of grassroots strategy at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). He’s based in Dallas.