Our overheating planet emerged as a key issue for voters in the U.S. midterm elections. Exit polling data reveals that climate issues and crime were tied for third place on issues that were top of mind for voters, in part because Gen Z made their presence known in record numbers.
The results were a win for clean energy. State and local elections offer the best opportunity to implement climate action, especially when environmental policy faces roadblocks in Congress.
In a press release, Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp commented on voter support for candidates supporting climate action.
“From New Hampshire to Michigan to Colorado, voters showed up for climate champions, returning many of them to office after passage of the most transformative climate measure in U.S. history,” Krupp said. “These unprecedented investments to hasten the transition to clean energy, spur innovation and reduce climate pollution helped prevent the losses that the president’s party typically suffer in the midterms.”
A new voting demographic: the climate voter
Researchers at Tufts University estimate 27% of youth between the ages of 18 and 29 showed up at the polls, the second-highest turnout in 30 years. Turnout in that age range for the 2018 midterms was 31%, and historically has hovered around 20% for the last 30 years.
Young climate voters showed up in higher numbers (31%) in key battleground states: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Concerns for the planet inspired the first Gen Z member of Congress, Maxwell Frost, to run for office.
Climate on the campaign trail
The current energy crisis is hitting consumers’ wallets. As Americans grapple with increasing electricity and home heating costs, energy and inflation featured heavily in key state campaigns.
Pro-environment Democrats emphasized clean energy investments passed through the Inflation Reduction Act, helping retain seats in energy-focused races in California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Maryland elected climate-friendly Governor Wes More, who wants to scale clean energy and electric vehicles. Former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan refused to sign a major climate bill passed by the state’s lawmakers in April but did not veto the passing of the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022.
Pennsylvania efforts paid off for environmental groups who pumped campaign funds to fend off the election of gubernatorial Candidate Doug Mastriano, a climate denier who wants to deregulate the oil industry and withdraw the state from a regional effort to reduce carbon pollution. Josh Shapiro, who beat out Mastriano, is in favor of scaling up clean energy targets and regulating the fossil fuel industry.
In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, vocal opponents of the Line 5 pipeline stretching through the Great Lakes, retained their seats. They are currently waging a lawsuit against the company to shut down the pipeline due to its impact on tribal and natural lands. Nessel’s opponent pledged to drop the lawsuits if elected to attorney general.
In New York, climate activist Sarahana Shrestha appealed to working-class voters and focused her campaign on how clean energy public utilities bring affordable power to people and benefit the climate. Shrestha prevailed for the state legislature over Republican candidate Patrick Sheehan.
Soaring energy costs for New Hampshire’s residents, who are reliant on dirty energy sources like natural gas, was a key part of the campaigns of Republican Governor Chris Sununu and New Hampshire Senate member Tom Sherman.
Sununu’s campaign linked higher electricity prices to efforts to transition to renewable energy and opposed regional climate programs like the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI).
Sununu ended up keeping his seat.
Climate on the ballot
California and New York were the only two states with large-scale environmental policy proposals on the ballot. During his campaign, Governor Gavin Newsom, who is usually pro-climate, opposed a policy that would tax California’s ultra rich to generate revenues for electric vehicle adoption. Voters followed suit by giving the tax a thumbs down.
The East Coast had better luck. New York voters were in favor of a $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act – which will allow state investment into clean energy, pollution reduction, water infrastructure, and environmental conservation projects.
In the Midwest, voters in Ann Arbor Michigan approved a tax proposal that would fund community clean energy initiatives.
Shifting attitudes towards climate in the U.S.
Notably, climate policy didn’t result in similar backlash during this election cycle, signaling increasing concern among the general public about the planet’s future.
In a survey taken after the Supreme Court limited the EPA’s authority to regulate power plants, 72% of Americans supported policies to encourage clean power at electricity plants.
Going forward, the effects of our overheating planet will be harder to ignore and may actually offer a way to rally voters across the spectrum to prioritize candidates who prioritize the planet.