Will Climate Change Move Voters to Act in the 2024 Election?

Image of U.S. flag and sign reading Vote 2024

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History whose broad expertise is in demand for comment on topics such as environmental history and policy, wildfires, water politics and public lands management. His most recent book is titled Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril. A new book, Burn Scars: A Documentary History of Fire Suppression, From Colonial Origins to the Resurgence of Cultural Burning will be published in October. This is the third in an occasional series by Pomona College faculty on issues at play in the fall elections.

What environmental issue is most likely to motivate people when they cast their ballot this November?

Here's a conundrum: In the past, most voters who indicated that the environment is a crucially important political issue did not always vote that way. I expect a similar disconnection will be revealed this election cycle, at least in the presidential election. Local and state elections may offer a different scenario. If it is true that we have a greater chance of impacting environmental policies and politics closer to where we live, I would expect issues such as wildfire, water and air quality, parks and open space, housing, gentrification and climate justice could bring voters to the polls.

What climate change/environmental issue would you like to see as front and center in the fall election?

It depends on which level of election we are talking about—local, state or federal. In Southern California, housing and the unhoused, which for me are matters of environmental justice, have become critical motivators. In California, more systemic concerns can be addressed via the legislature, such as how we move water from the north to the south; how we control toxins in the air, land, and water; how we build more resilient communities, human and biotic; and, not least, how we sharply reduce our use of fossil fuels and replace them with more renewable forms of energy. The federal budget, as the Biden Administration has demonstrated with massive outlays via the Inflation Reduction Act, can accelerate, and strikingly so, the implementation of key environmental initiatives and projects at all levels.

What would be the main difference in the approach to environmental issues in a second Biden presidency as compared to a Trump White House?

The differences are so stark, so profound, that I don't know where to begin (or end). But here are a couple of thoughts. The drive to secure more renewables, the pace of which has picked up in response to Biden administration incentives—even in Texas—would be disrupted once again under a Trump presidency, as they were in the four years of Trump’s initial term in office. Likewise, we would see a repeat of the Trump administration’s opening up of much-contested oil-and-gas fields around Chaco Canyon and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Biden has reversed. Obama-era national monument designations, which Trump then challenged and diminished and that Biden has moved to reinstate, once more would be attacked. And that robust funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a centerpiece of Biden’s Build Back Better campaign pledge, would disappear. The bill, among many other provisions, invests in public transit, including more electric buses; helps reclaim abandoned mines and well fields; and makes the nation’s electric grid more efficient and resilient in the face of climate change.

What would it take for younger voters’ interest in climate and environmental issues to make a difference in election outcomes this fall?

That’s simple. Register to vote. Help other, likeminded voters to register. Write postcards and knock on doors—two critical “shoe-leather” tactics proven to get out the vote. Then vote for those candidates running for local, state and federal offices with demonstrable commitments to climate mitigation and environmental protection. Be relentless. Saving democracy is critical to saving the planet.