What Will Mobilize the Youth Vote in 2020? Not Impeachment—Climate Change | Opinion

Sitting in a Washington, D.C., bistro a week ago, I asked the newly minted 18-year-old I'd come to visit what the word was on her progressive campus about the impeachment inquiry. "Well, everyone knows it's happening, obviously," she said. "But—no one's really talking about it."

So, what is everyone talking about? The Democratic candidates for president? Not exactly.

"It's like choosing between children," she said. "There's so much bickering, and it's so petty—like, these aren't the things that should be holding our attention."

What does matter? Without a moment's hesitation, she declared—"Climate."

And it makes sense: From devastating floods in Venice to unprecedented bushfires in Australia to record mid-November lows from the northeastern U.S. to Texas, increasingly extreme weather events have been a way of life for the young. So I could hardly criticize when I heard that climate change protesters had stormed the field—and ESPNU's broadcast—after the halftime show of the recent Yale-Harvard football game. They forced a long delay, and hundreds of fans eventually joined them to the tune of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." ESPN's Jack Ford reportedly compared it all to the protests of the Vietnam era.

Truth be told, I was proud of the kids. Because, however much I love student athletes and hate game-delays, what those young activists brought to the field felt like exactly the kind of electricity we need next year. Irrespective of what happened between President Trump and Ukraine, it's unlikely the Senate will remove him—which means Democrats will have to do it the old-fashioned way next November.

Young people could be a linch-pin of that effort. According to the Pew Research Center, 37 percent of eligible American voters in 2020 will be Millennials or Gen Z (i.e., born 1981 or later), and a national poll of 18- to 29-year-olds by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School found that the president's approval rating on climate change was just 24 percent, the lowest of all issues covered. Add to that young Americans' passion for (or fury over) climate—something I saw first-hand this summer watching New York City crowds flock to Greta Thunberg after she sailed her emissions-free yacht across the Atlantic for the U.N. Climate Action Summit—and you might have just enough energy to power a liberal into the White House.

In other words, the president should be more worried about rising sea levels than about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. And the Democratic party should be talking about the climate crisis a whole lot more. While the impeachment inquiry certainly matters, I'm not sure it's moved everyday Americans much: There should have been a collective gasp when the president's former top Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, called his dealings with Ukraine "a domestic political errand." But most of what I heard even walking around the capital was a mix of bemused resignation and sheer impeachment fatigue.

And young Americans in particular seem less than riveted by the inquiry—though 60 percent of Gen Z and Millennials said in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that they supported the Senate voting to remove President Trump from office, only 16 percent said they'd been following the news about the House's impeachment inquiry "very closely," by far the lowest among all generations.

Yet impeachment still dominates the headlines, while students have to stage elaborate stunts to bring attention to the climate catastrophes unfolding around the world. It's no wonder many young people adore Sen. Bernie Sanders. Climate was the focus of just one question in the most recent Democratic primary debate (and less than 10 percent of the questions over all five debates so far), but Sanders still managed to bring climate change up practically the second he started speaking, well before moderators got on the subject. And he called it, emphatically, what it is—"the existential threat of our time."

Democrats take note. Impeach and convict if it's called for. But in the race to inspire action, don't forget what the planet can do.

Nadira Hira, a Newsweek contributor, has written for publications ranging from Essence and Fortune to Smithsonian and MTV News.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​