‘It makes me so angry’: First-time voters want leaders to act now on climate change
Erin Stone Arizona Republic
Anna Mohr-Almeida was only 8 years old when she first experienced a feeling of existential dread. By the time she was 10, the phrase “climate change” had become a regular part of her vocabulary. By 14, she had started an environmental nonprofit, marched at climate rallies across Phoenix and beyond, and testified at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing.
For her, there is too much to do in too little time.
“I always felt my generation has to fight for our future because otherwise our kids aren’t going to see these beautiful animals, we’re not going to have good air to breathe and we’re not going to have water,” she said.
Today’s young people are coming of age during a global pandemic, renewed uprisings against systemic racism and one of the most polarized political moments in American history.
One in ten eligible voters in the 2020 electorate will be part of this new generation of Americans, known as Generation Z. Members of Gen Z are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation. They have never known a world without smartphones.
They’re also the first generation who can be realistically unsure about how much of the Earth will be habitable in the latter half of their lives. They will live to see which of many climate projections play out.
Thirty years from now, when the youngest Gen Zers are in their mid-50s, human-propelled climate change could displace over 1 billion people and ruin ecosystems.
In 2018, scientists warned world leaders to take drastic action and reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global heating driven by the demands of modern society.
The number of Americans as a whole who worry about climate change is rising. But the issue is most important to the nation’s youngest and newest voters, who will face worsening consequences of the crisis throughout their lifetimes if emissions aren’t significantly addressed.
These young voters believe the climate crisis should bring the country together, not pull it further apart. Americans are often politically divided about the causes and seriousness of climate change, but there is strong public support across party linesfor a variety of climate and renewable energy policies.
Though most Gen Z-ers lean left and see climate change as a serious threat, even young Republicans are significantly more likely than their GOP elders to think humans have a large role in climate change and that the federal government is doing too little to address it.
Some of those young people watched keenly this week as the two presidential candidates, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, addressed climate change in the first televised debate.
Trump seemed to reluctantly acknowledge that human activity drove climate change “to an extent,” but defended his decision to leave the Paris climate accord and his rollback of vehicle emission standards that would reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
Biden talked about steps that could be taken now, such as cleaner energy initiatives and vehicles that pollute less, and said programs to protect the environment could create new jobs.
“In the debate, you saw that Biden discussed the relevancy of climate change and that it is an issue that needs to be addressed,” said Ethan Peters, a freshman at the University of Arizona studying environmental science, “while Trump said our air and water are as clean as ever and that there is no issue in regards to climate change that needs to be addressed.”
The Arizona Republic spoke to a variety of young, first-time voters throughout the state. They expressed frustration at being seen as the generation who will finally act on climate change, when action could be taken now. They expressed fear and sadness for their own future children, and how much might already be lost by then.
Despite the many challenges, they all emphasized the need to come together, to bridge social and political divides, in order to pave, or rather, sow a path forward.
Here are their stories, told in their own voices. The interviews were lightly edited for length and clarity.
19, of Phoenix. Freshman at Arizona State University studying sociology
My grandmother, when she was in Mexico, she was in poverty. Her parents worked on agave tequileña fields and for local farmers. She didn’t have access to a lot of resources that were accessible to people with higher income, so she became more aware of the fact that her relationship to the environment is important. My grandma loves planting flowers and herbs in her garden. When I was younger I watched her gardening while she told me stories. As a Latina, I think, being part of the Latino community, we are raised to know the importance of what we’re provided by our Mother Earth. That’s something that was always ingrained in me.
Climate change, it affects all of us, it affects the whole world. One thing that I feel the other side has wrong is that it’s just something to push a political agenda. It’s not a political issue. It’s a human issue. It’s an issue of our Mother Earth. We need to start shifting the way we’re seeing this discussion and also making sure that we’re addressing the communities that are affected the most.
It is an issue that affects all humans, but it does disproportionately affect people of color and lower income communities. It’s something that’s directly affecting them now and not just something that’s going to affect them in the future. People who live in low income communities are usually closer to factories that create pollution. Climate change makes all that worse.
My younger cousin had bad asthma in elementary school. Sometimes there were high pollution days where he couldn’t go outside. Living in Phoenix, a bigger city where there’s a lot of pollution in the air, living closer to the factories, traffic. That was obviously a huge challenge with school and stuff. In high school, I got connected to Chispa Arizona, an environmental organization that focuses on climate activism. When I became aware that Chispa was working towards funding electric, clean busses in our district to assist children who have asthma, that really hit home for me.
Because it’s my first time voting, it feels overwhelming and kind of nerve wracking. There’s so much information that I feel I need to take in so that I can be informed. I was leaning towards Bernie Sanders but because he’s not in the race anymore we have these two people to choose from that I don’t really believe in. But the actions of our current president and where he’s taken us these past four years are what’s encouraging me to vote for our Democratic candidate.
There are a lot of things that are directly affecting my community. I know that my decision matters not only for myself, but also those in my family who are silenced because they’re immigrants. I have family members who are undocumented or are going through the process of trying to become citizens, so I feel like it’s super important for me to do what I have the privilege to do. I feel this sense of duty to exercise my right.
20, from Hilmar, Calif. Sophomore at Arizona State University majoring in economics and civic and economic thought and leadership.
I grew up in rural California in a conservative household. That wasn’t the path I had to take, but it’s the perspective I adopted of the world. My grandparents worked on ranches in Arizona. My father worked in the construction industry. I am the first generation in my family to go to college.
Where I grew up, most of the people I went to school with had parents who owned or worked on dairies or almond orchards. I knew firsthand how the drought impacted them. I consider myself a fierce advocate for farmers. I want to find ways that we can support them while also being environmentally conscious.
I care so much about environmentalism, especially as a Christian, because I care about people. And if we don’t take care of our home, we can’t take care of our people. Growing up in California, there were wildfires every year. The big one that burned down Paradise, I went up there with other student volunteers to help the community. It was devastating for me to see something like that, especially something that may have been preventable.
I was a sophomore in high school during the 2016 election. It just seemed different, the sensationalism of it. That grabbed my interest and down the rabbit hole I went. Now at ASU I’m one of the officers for the College Republicans and American Conservation Coalition. We see ourselves as the next generation of Republicans. If the GOP hopes to have a younger base in their future, it’s imperative that they address issues that are important to us. We were disappointed that the RNC didn’t have anything about climate on the platform. The left has the Green New Deal, but I think it’s time we offer an alternative.
I feel like we all want to assign malicious intent to the other side. The other side is out to get you. The other side is evil. Nine times out of ten, the other side does have your best interests in mind, they just have a different way of going about it. And I think that’s something Republicans need to understand too. Democrats aren’t out to get us either.
I am probably going to vote for Trump. It’s tough. The other issue I’m very passionate about is the abortion issue. It’s hard for me to vote for someone who I know doesn’t align with my values on that. But am I also betraying my values when I vote for Trump? There’s an argument for that. As Christians, we’re kind of politically homeless. There’s not really a party for us anymore.
I think the American people are tired of the hyper-polarization in Washington. Most of us know that we could get along, we can reach across the aisle. But in the era of Trump, it just seems like your main goal is to get rid of Trump or your main goal is to support him no matter what. And I think that’s dangerous to any conversation. I have a lot of conversations with people of opposing views, and often our conclusion is to agree to disagree because none of us will change our minds. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, many of us are unwilling to hear the other side.
17, from Mesa. Freshman at Arizona State University studying animation and civil engineering.
I was in third grade when I started thinking about the climate crisis. I looked at an encyclopedia and saw all these cool animals. And then I saw the word extinct and learned what the word extinct meant. Then I learned the word endangered. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan and there was a song called Earth Song. The music video consists of a bunch of animals dying. I remember watching it and bawling my eyes out. I was like, wow, my world is way bigger than I thought.
Nothing really came of that fire deep inside until I was in fifth grade, when Arizona was fighting for solar. There was a meeting at the Arizona Corporate Commission. If they voted a certain way, they would basically kill solar in Arizona. That was when I gave my first speech. I was very upset with how things were going and I just didn’t want any more animals to die. From then on, I just kind of grew as an activist.
I always felt my generation has to fight for our future because otherwise our kids aren’t going to see these beautiful animals, we’re not going to have good air to breathe and we’re not going to have water. It’s shaped me into a person that has a sense of responsibility. But as time has gone on, I’ve gotten tired of older generations telling us ours is the generation that’s gonna fix everything. It makes me so angry. You guys have the power right now to do something. Why do we have to do it?
It shouldn’t be a political issue. It’s everyone’s issue. Like Flat Earthers. You think the Earth is flat even though NASA says it’s not? Or with coronavirus. Wear a mask! If we go in the same direction we’re going, I think we’re basically gonna be screwed. I don’t know how we’ll be able to turn ourselves around.
I feel like at this point any movement is good. There needs to be a middle ground because a lot of people are scared, they don’t want to think about stuff that makes them uncomfortable. My freshman year I had a friend who was a very religious person. I was telling her about this climate summit I was doing and she was like, no, none of this is real. It’s what God wants. I just got so angry. I understand that religion is important to people and I respect that, but there has to be a limit to how much you believe.
Some mindsets aren’t going to change, so we can’t aim for everybody. Especially more conservative people, if you come at them too strong it tends to shut people down. If they’ve been believing something for such a long time and then suddenly all the stuff they’ve been taught goes out the window, it’s overwhelming.
It’s a very big deal to vote. Not everyone has the opportunity to speak out and you can when you vote. I will be casting my ballot and I will be so happy to tell my kids that my first vote was against Donald J. Trump.
18, from Flagstaff. Freshman studying environmental science at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
My middle school was at the base of Mount Elden. There was an outdoor learning program. Being in Flagstaff, that’s really convenient. It was a new way to learn, being outside, being able to really enjoy it. Especially in middle school. That’s no one’s prime. It was the best way to make that experience less miserable.
Around that time Flagstaff passed a plastic bag ban locally. But then the state banned plastic bag bans for local governments to do. We wrote letters to grocery stores that our parents shopped at, proposing the idea of using less plastic or selling reusable bags. This was also around the time I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Hearing about that kind of stuff puts things in perspective. Since I’ve been in high school, I started understanding climate change, what’s the problem, why it’s a problem, what’s causing it.
I was always really into marine biology and I’ve lived in Arizona my whole life so that’s just something I found really cool. One of the first things I read about was coral bleaching, with ocean temperatures rising and coral reefs being destroyed. And Flagstaff is always impacted by fires. If it keeps getting drier and drier, at some point we won’t have a forest anymore. As temperatures rise, the pine trees are going to be dying. They can only go up so high. And then there’s just nothing left.
In the past young people haven’t really voted so much, which sucks. I was hoping Bernie would get the nomination, but Biden has come out with a pretty big climate plan, which I’m happy to see. We can’t push it off to the next generation because by the time we get to the next generation, it’ll be too late. I want my kids to see the things I’ve seen. I want them to be able to walk out into the forest. I would love to go see the Great Barrier Reef one of these days. There are certain things I’d like to do, I’d like my kids to do, my grandkids to do, their kids. And if we keep doing what we’re doing they won’t have that opportunity.
Ninety-nine percent of scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by humans. To get 99 percent of any group to agree on something is rare. Some people say we’ve got 10 years until what we’ve done is irreversible. Some people say that’s where we are now. Regardless, we’re coming up on that time and we need to do something about it.
Until I was about 10 years old, my family was Mormon, more conservative. Then my parents got divorced and my mom started to become more liberal. It impacted me to be a listener. Not just to see someone as liberal or conservative, but as a person who has beliefs and views based upon their upbringing. The minute somebody disagrees with me, I’m not going to shout in their face about how they’re an idiot. I want to have a productive conversation, not a meaningless argument.
Our generation needs to get across that divide, to come together on things that shouldn’t divide us, like climate change. It’s real. People get too caught up on whether they’re Democrat or Republican and don’t look into the actual issues. So I hope that’s an issue that people vote on because it really comes down to life or death.
18, from the Fort Apache Reservation. Attending college studying Indigenous studies and creative writing
When we visit my grandparents in Whiteriver, especially during the Fall, the water smells. You know how water doesn’t really have a smell? I don’t know how to describe it, but it doesn’t smell very clean. When you go to drink water from the tap you have to wait because the water comes out really white then brown and cloudy. You have to wait at least two minutes until it turns clear.
I remember I was at a friend’s house in Phoenix. We went to drink the tap and I was waiting and she was like, ‘why aren’t you drinking it?’ I said ‘you have to wait so you don’t get sick.’ I remember her just looking at me. Growing up, I learned that’s not very common, that you have to wait for the water or sometimes there just isn’t water running. I thought that happened to everybody.
I’m White Mountain Apache and Navajo. I live in Gilbert. Whenever we would go back to our reservation, go fishing or whatever, we always had to clean up after ourselves. We were told to be nice to the Earth, to respect it. Everything we do leaves a consequence. When we breathe in the air, the air is doing something for us and we’re giving something back out into the air.
Especially within our Native communities, we have to think of each other. We have to think of our elders. We have to think of our youth. So when I think about voting, I’m not voting only for myself. I want things to be better for all of us. I want to vote to help the environment because the environment is what’s keeping my people alive and nourished and well.
Native people don’t really have a high percentage of voting and that has to do with things like voting accessibility. I consider myself very privileged that it’s really easy for me to vote. I have an address that will be taken. Some voting places won’t take P.O. boxes, which most reservations have.
I’m not overly thrilled to vote, but I do plan on voting for Biden. I appreciate his climate action plan. He actually listens to science. People like Donald Trump have done very much the opposite. Being an Indigenous person, I hope Biden won’t allow for things like the Dakota Access pipeline, or he’ll push for cleaning up mines left on reservations putting our elders at risk. I hope for those things.
Living in Gilbert, there’s a Walmart literally ten minutes away and Target is an eight minute drive away. Whereas on Navajo Nation, one of my grandmas has to drive at least two hours to go to Flagstaff. Certain parts of the rez don’t have running water or electricity, so they’re planting their own crops and hauling water. People don’t take into consideration that people live this way.
Oftentimes what people lack is empathy. People just stick to like, how is this affecting me personally? They don’t think about how it is affecting their neighbor or a homeless person. Considering others and placing yourself in someone else’s shoes would change a lot drastically.
For example, when you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, white people that didn’t recognize their privilege before are now beginning to realize, wow, I don’t have to worry about going for a walk outside in a dark hoodie, whereas a young Black male does.
It’s really uncomfortable to consider how much privilege you hold. Sometimes I don’t like to think about how much privilege I hold. But we have to have uncomfortable realizations and take them for what they are, hopefully learn from them, and be better. I know we would like a big change all at once, but small changes are what leads to the big change
My late medicine man, Harris Burnette, used to say, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” I think we as a society will be winners, but for that to happen we need to make changes within ourselves, our communities, our states. That is what will change this country and the world. It definitely isn’t easy, it is going to feel like we have a huge weight on our shoulders, but we don’t quit striving for change.