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Out In The Cold

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Republicans have a lot to say about the immorality of saddling the next generation with our national debt. But when it comes to leaving them a wrecked, depleted and rapidly warming planet, they are taking the exact opposite line.

That's especially odd when you consider how important that next generation is to the faltering GOP -- and how broadly united those voters, known as "Millennials," are in their concern over global warming and other energy and environment issues.

GOP leaders claim to be courting these young adults, but that apparently extends only to their use of Twitter and promises of a "hip-hop" party makeover. Meanwhile, they seem intent on not just opposing, but wildly denouncing and denigrating this generation's most unifying issue.

Even the most senior Republican leaders, and the top GOP lawmakers on energy and environment committees, keep shooting themselves in the foot by spewing antiquated, anti-science nonsense. If they continue this type of Neanderthal posturing, the GOP is going to lose something a lot more valuable than its old moderates, like Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who recently switched parties to become a Democrat.

Those who study Millennial politics say that the Republican Party is on the verge of completely alienating the coming generation -- just as its previous controversial platforms ensured that the party kissed off such huge demographic swaths as African Americans, single women and Hispanics, who at present vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

While the issue of climate change, and its particular effect on future generations, has long been on the back burner in Washington, it appears to be heading for the headlines. President Barack Obama has said that he wants to pass a comprehensive environment and energy law this year. That bill, the "American Clean Energy and Security Act" (ACES), co-authored by Democrats -- Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey and California Rep. Henry Waxman -- attempts to reduce carbon emissions, promote the use of renewable-energy sources, invest in "smart grid" infrastructure and create green-industry jobs.

"There is no question in my mind that climate change, and the effort to address these issues, could catalyze a generation," says Lawrence Rasky, chairman of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications in Boston and former adviser to Markey.

But could it also bring Democratic Party dominance? For good or ill, that's what's coming to Capitol Hill if the early tendency of Millennials -- who voted more than 2-to-1 for Obama -- solidifies into long-term political allegiance.

The math is not complicated. At 100 million strong, Millennials -- those born between roughly 1980 and 2000 -- are the single largest generation of Americans, ever; and, according to a new report authored by Ruy Teixeira, analyst with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, another 4.5 million of them reach voting age every year. By 2016, they will already comprise a third of the total vote.

Twenty years from now, they will make up almost two-fifths of the electorate. If they vote the way they did for Obama, or anywhere close to it, the GOP is effectively finished for the foreseeable future -- the first victim of the very global warming that the party has largely refused to acknowledge exists.

 

Strong stuff

Global warming, more than any other issue, carries an urgency among Millennials of all backgrounds and ideologies. "That's the scary thing, if you work for the RNC [Republican National Committee]," says John della Volpe, who studies this generation at the Harvard University Institute of Politics (IOP). "It absolutely cuts across all the demographics."

Conventional wisdom suggests that getting bogged down in environmental legislation would distract Democrats from important issues like the economy and foreign policy. But that shows how little politicians have taken to heart the importance of the Millennials, say Michael Hais and Morley Winograd, co-authors of Millennial Makeover.

To this generation, this fight is not only about climate change -- it is about creating green jobs and increasing national security by reducing dependence on foreign oil.

"Millennials feel a real sense of urgency about dealing with the energy and environment," says Teixeira.

For some time now, they have channeled their efforts into activism, particularly on school campuses, where grassroots "going green" efforts (to pressure administrators into adopting energy-saving or recycling practices) are commonplace.

Now, some young voters are starting to take that message to Washington. In March, 12,000 young adults and college students representing PowerShift '09, a coalition of 40 environmental groups, rallied in Washington, D.C., to demand green-friendly energy and environmental legislation.

Markey -- who spoke at that rally -- has held two hearings specifically to hear testimony from young leaders. One of those hearings overflowed the largest congressional hearing room available, says a staffer on Markey's committee, who adds that young adults wearing green PowerShift shirts also packed the recent hearings on the ACES bill.

"Their political weight and their political savvy is growing," the aide says. "And they want the strongest bill."

 

Choosing sides

In a stance utterly bewildering to most Beltway veterans, Millennials don't necessarily view the environment as a partisan or ideological issue. To them, it's an infrastructure problem, like wanting the New Orleans levees fixed.

That's why even those Millennials otherwise open to the GOP will get turned off if the party opposes climate-change progress.

"The environment can link groups that disagree on other issues," says Hais. "Even young evangelicals."

Indeed, perhaps the most interesting group of Millennials is what della Volpe calls the religious center, which comprises about a fifth of Millennials. Members of that group hold many of the conservative beliefs of older evangelicals: They fear the moral decay of American culture, disapprove of homosexuality and want more religion in public life. Yet on other issues -- particularly the environment -- they are progressive. In particular, they believe in man's biblical responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth.

"They are greener than any other group" of Millennials, says della Volpe, who compares them to traditional New England Catholics, historically solid Democratic voters despite strong disagreements with the party over abortion and other issues.

In 2004, the religious-center Millennials split their votes evenly between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Just four years later, della Volpe believes, they voted "overwhelmingly for Obama," though he does not yet have the final numbers. (Harvard's IOP will be releasing a report on Millennial voting later this month.)

The environmental-legislation debate, if it divides the parties as cleanly as expected, could go a long way toward making the GOP unpalatable for those voters.

If the GOP keeps this up, notes Teixeira, "It probably will be true that this generation will be locked in with the Democratic Party for years -- and completely out of reach for the Republican Party."

 

Blue opportunity

Of course, Democrats have a long history of screwing up golden opportunities. And they could do it again.

Millennials' Democratic leaning is not yet set in stone. In fact, says Peter Lawrence, director of CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University in Medford, just a couple of years ago, Democrats had only a slight advantage among Millennials.

And Millennials are not yet moving in large numbers toward registering or self-identifying as Democrats, adds della Volpe.

"This generation has quite a lot of cynicism about political institutions," says Teixeira. "Even though they have the initial approval of this group ... Democrats have to show this generation that they are not just the same-old, same-old."

Which is exactly what could happen if Democrats fail to follow through on global warming.

The House passed the ACES bill last month, by a narrow 219-212 vote. But already there are signs that Democrats in the Senate, and Obama himself, may be leaning toward moving much more slowly on the issue.

Rasky, who is following the issue closely, says many lawmakers are reluctant to move too quickly on reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, particularly in the form of "cap and trade," the approach incorporated in Markey's bill. Under "cap and trade," the government would set a maximum "cap" on emissions, and then issue permits to industry allowing businesses to emit a certain level of pollutant. Businesses that came in under that permitted amount could trade the balance to other companies. Over time, the overall "cap" would be lowered, while rewarding companies that work to reduce emissions. 

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, has also indicated that, rather than vote on the House bill, she will set up her own study groups -- and possibly not emerge with a bill until next spring. Obama, who tried unsuccessfully to include cap and trade in the recently passed budget, has been notably quiet about the issue.

That has led to growing concerns that the legislation might be watered down to ensure passage. Cap and trade might come out altogether; huge exemptions might be given; target reductions might be modified. Many on the left are complaining: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent voice on the environment, has blasted the bill for including so-called clean-coal technology.

And if lawmakers delay the passage of this bill to avoid a political battle, they run into another problem: the most important climate event in a decade, December's Copenhagen Summit, which Obama will attend along with representatives of 175 nations. That's when the world will try to forge a new international agreement, as the old Kyoto Protocols (which the U.S. never ratified) expire.

Former vice-president Al Gore, testifying two weeks ago at Markey's hearing, stressed the importance of getting the legislation done before Copenhagen, to move the U.S. in line with other countries. With high-profile advocates like Gore leading them, Millennials are likely to view Copenhagen as a looming imperative.

Millennials' faith in international cooperation is extraordinarily high -- whether applied to stopping genocide in Darfur, or willingness to sit down with rogue leaders -- and is no different in this instance, according to those who study Millennial-generation political attitudes. "That's a very big deal," says della Volpe, "and that's never going to change. Without question."

Of course, that's also the Democrats' safety net for not mucking up this bill: Republicans these days loathe international cooperation, and are sure to make that known as Copenhagen approaches. "If one party is seen as impeding the United States' ability to take part in a multi-national approach," says Winograd, "it could be a nail in the coffin for Republican credibility among Millennials."

 

GOP follies

Republicans would be wise to avoid divisiveness on this issue, and some have tried. After all, Republican presidential candidate John McCain was an outspoken believer in the importance of fighting global warming -- and even his more conservative running-mate, Sarah Palin, accepts the reality she sees all around her in Alaska.

Republican leaders have a strategy for presenting a reasonable opposition to Democrats' environment and energy initiatives. They intend to argue that the particular approach the Democrats are taking would be too costly. 

But the loosest cannons in the GOP -- and they are legion -- simply cannot stick with the game plan. How can they? Surveys show that solid majorities of Republicans believe global warming is either a myth or, at most, a wildly overblown media creation. Those warming deniers control the party, and their elected officials can only go along with it.

As a result, prominent Republicans regularly spew inanities on climate change ready-made for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And it only gets worse when you move beyond the elected Republicans. The most popular conservative talk-show hosts, publications, bloggers and pundits are almost unanimously dismissive of global warming, from columnist George F. Will, to Fox News superstar Glenn Beck, to bloggers at redstate.com.

After the recent EPA announcement on regulating greenhouse gasses, Jonah Goldberg, National Review contributor, Fox News analyst, book author and rising star of right-wing punditry, fumed on National Review Online, without irony, that "A federal agency has decided that it has the power to regulate everything, including the air you breathe" -- as if, under the Clean Air Act, the federal government has not been doing exactly that for the past four decades.

To almost anyone under the age of 30, all of this is similar to watching cigarette executives insist that smoking isn't harmful.

"Younger voters get interested when they can choose sides," says Rasky, and the Republicans are going to make that very easy. "You give them the opportunity, they'll talk about drilling for oil, and how global warming isn't really happening." 

To Millennials, that rhetoric makes the GOP nothing more than obnoxious gas.

 

David S. Bernstein is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix, where this story originally appeared.

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