Youth Climate Activists Have Endorsed Bernie Sanders. Can It Tip the Scales?

A recent wave of endorsements reflects the Vermont Senator’s appeal for younger voters who are concerned with climate.

As sparring continues within the ranks of the Democratic Party, a certain voting bloc — one that didn’t yet exist during the 2016 presidential election because its members were in middle school and had not yet learned about climate breakdown — remains unified and outspoken as to who will get its vote in this election cycle.

“We’re in a climate emergency, so the only logical candidate is Bernie Sanders,” said Jamie Margolin of Seattle, the 18-year-old founder of youth-led climate action organization Zero Hour. Margolin’s group organized the first youth climate march on Washington, D.C., and in cities across the U.S. and beyond in the summer of 2018, a month before Swedish climate icon Greta Thunberg began her weekly school strikes. Unlike some other youth-led organizations that have formally endorsed Senator Sanders following highly involved decision-making processes, Zero Hour leaders found that they didn’t need a complicated procedure for voting on who to endorse because it was clearly unanimous. Margolin says members of Zero Hour looked to Sanders’s history of climate initiatives, such as his push to include $3.2 billion in energy efficiency grants as part of the Obama administration’s 2009 economic recovery act, which created or saved over 60,000 jobs.

As a climate activist, Margolin told Truthout, she’s learned that most politicians have to be pushed tirelessly to stand up to powerful interests and commit to passing the kind of legislation required to curb the climate crisis. But Sanders and his campaign, she said, speak out on their own volition about the kinds of issues she and her Zero Hour colleagues think are most essential in stopping climate change and the inequality it already exacerbates. For example, Sanders has called for shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline, which he has said “should never have been built in the first place.”

“He’s not scared to [say] that,” Margolin said.

But Margolin wasn’t always sold on Sanders. In fact, she didn’t like him at all during the 2016 primaries. “I was a diehard Clinton supporter rooting against Bernie Sanders,” she explained. “[His] message was confusing to me at first because it was [my] first time hearing something so radical,” she recalled. Things have shifted since 2016, she says. Now, she doesn’t think he’s radical at all. “Bernie Sanders isn’t risky — everyone else is risky. He’s safe.”

A wave of youth climate activist endorsements began with a December 6 announcement from leaders of U.S. Youth Climate Strike, one of the organizations that helped spur weekly Friday protests in the United States, in the model of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future school strikes. Sixteen-year-old co-founder Isra Hirsi of Minneapolis said Sanders’s climate plan was leagues ahead of the other candidates and has pushed the conversation during this election cycle to be more rigorous. “Before Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal, we weren’t talking about front-line communities, we weren’t talking about Indigenous sovereignty like we should have,” she explained in a Sanders campaign video. In Green New Deal report cards created by the progressive think tank Data For Progress, which are based on a rubric of 48 components, such as “Arctic protection” and “sovereignty rights & Indigenous lands,” Sanders scored a 45, in comparison with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 38, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s 30 and former Vice President Joe Biden’s 26. Indigenous groups have called for a Red Deal that would go further than any candidates’ climate plans on centering Native climate needs through policies like a complete moratorium on oil, gas and coal extraction.

At the same time, thousands of youth organizers with the Sunrise Movement delved into a six-week-long intensive process to determine if and who they would endorse. Sanders got 76 percent of the vote, the group announced on January 9, while Warren came in second at 17.4 percent. Co-founder Stephen O’Hanlon says there’s a kind of understanding between Sanders and youth activists that sets him apart from the other candidates. “He understands the importance of social movements and sees himself as the organizer-in-chief,” rather than just the head of state, O’Hanlon told Truthout. “More so than any other candidate, [he] is the kind of president that we want to be organizing under.”

Less than a week later, the over 190,000-member online group, New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens, an open forum filled with discussion over all things bus, train and bike, also endorsed Sanders.

This wave of endorsements has had a sort of trickle-down effect on the personal choices of individual activists. Nineteen-year-old Edgar McGregor, who has staged weekly climate strikes and trash cleanups in Pasadena, California, since March 2019, told Truthout that he was originally going to keep his decision to himself. McGregor didn’t want to make other climate activists feel pressured to have to announce their choices. “After Sunrise endorsed Bernie Sanders, it was pretty clear that the environmental movement was backing him,” he said.

For 17-year-old Jerome Foster II, who has led regular Friday climate strikes outside the White House since May 2019, seeing these kinds of public statements has been helpful. At first, Foster liked Pete Buttigieg. Then he gravitated toward both Sanders and Warren. Warren’s climate platform includes an extensive climate justice plan modeled off of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposals, the only candidate who ran with climate as his explicit priority.

“But then I kept seeing Jamie Margolin and Isra Hirsi — all these really good friends of mine endorsing Sanders,” Foster told Truthout. “They really taught me how they’re different,” including Sanders’s promise of a $16.3 trillion federal investment to fund his proposed Green New Deal, and to create 20 million jobs in the process — numbers that overshadow other candidates’ commitments. “And that’s really led me over to Bernie,” Foster said.

The laser-focus on climate among high school, college and twentysomethings is also evident in broader swaths of the population. According to the Environmental Voter Project, 14 percent of registered voters list “addressing climate change and protecting the environment” as their top priority over all other issues, up from an estimated 2 to 6 percent in the 2016 presidential election. Concern over climate is much more acute if you talk to younger voters. Thirty-four percent of Gen Z voters and 27 percent of Millennials reported climate was their top issue in 2019, followed by racial discrimination, immigration, health care reform and mental health. On the same survey, more young people reported having taken action by voting on their concerns over climate than those citing the other top issues.

But while Gen Z and Millennial voters make up 38 percent of the potential voter population, as compared to Baby Boomers’ 29 percent, the question is who ends up actually showing up at the polls. “Boomers vote like it’s their job, whereas young people historically stay at home on Election Day,” said Nathaniel Stinnett, executive director of the Environmental Voter Project. “If that changes in 2020, then the entire world can change,” he said.

Still, the decisive appeal of a single Democratic candidate outside of the youth climate activist ecosystem remains incalculable. “In the Democratic primaries, voters don’t have long-standing connections to any candidate. So everyone could ‘swing,’” said Georgetown University political science professor Hans Noel. “We can talk about important voter groups, though.” Young voters and voters of color, including Black voters, will be hard to win without. And many of the youth climate groups are led by and attract people that fit both identities. Since the margins between each candidate can be small, Noel said, any voting bloc could tip the scales.

That’s just what motivates 23-year-old Dylan Carney, who organizes with the New Hampshire Youth Movement — another youth-led organization that formally endorsed Sanders in January after a process during which he took 82 percent of the group’s vote. “We’re young people from across the state who are scared of losing our homes and communities to the climate crisis,” Carney told Truthout. But Carney and others with his group are worried about plenty of other things too, Carney says. Like the prospect of living in constant debt. New Hampshire boasts the most expensive in-state universities in the country, he points out. “Sanders … backed the Green New Deal, he wrote the Medicare for All bill, he’s called for total forgiveness for student loan debt.” Not only does he support those things, said Carney, “but he will also be the most accountable to all of us when he takes office,” as Sanders refuses to accept political campaign donations from corporate interests.

Sanders critics, like University of California San Diego professor of international relations David Victor, have questioned whether the changes Sanders promises are deliverable. “It can’t work in the real world,” Victor told The New York Times. Other critics have pointed out that Sanders’s proposed transportation infrastructure projects, including a new high-speed rail network, might generate a blast of new emissions. In January, a group of 57 scientists published an open letter of support for Sanders’s Green New Deal, which calls for noting that it is realistic, necessary and backed by science. Carney stressed that the opportunity for system change is exactly what excites young voters.

With the help of Sunrise Movement volunteers, the New Hampshire Youth Movement is hitting classrooms and dining halls at college campuses across the state in hopes of gathering a list of 14,000 young voters who pledge to turn out for Sanders at the February 11 primary. “New Hampshire elections have historically come down to close margins,” Carney explains, pointing to how Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan beat incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte by 1,019 votes in a 2016 senate race. “Increasing youth voter turnout of any margin has a clear impact on turnout for Sanders,” he says. “And in such a close primary, 14,000 voters can be a massive swing number.” In a January poll by Morning Consult, Sanders outperformed Biden against Trump among three key groups: voters age 18-29, people who self-describe as having no interest in politics, and registered independents.

Meanwhile, U.S. Youth Climate Strike has planned a series of primary election protests outside of polling places, where they’ll remind voters to consider climate when checking a box in favor of a candidate. Zero Hour has launched the #Vote4OurFuture campaign, aiming to spur the largest youth voter turnout in history, which they’ll chip away at by sending groups of activists to knock on doors in battleground states.

“But we’re not here to just help [Sanders] win the election,” said Carney. “We’re here to win the Green New Deal, and it’s strategic to put him in the president’s seat.”