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 senator Arlen Specter, who last week 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 previous controversial platforms it has endorsed 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 congressman Edward Markey and California congressman Henry Waxman — is now being finalized, following hearings that coincided with Earth Day two weeks ago. It 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 advisor 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 two-to-one 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.
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."
"For young people, no issue is more important," says Pat Johnson, a Suffolk University student and president of the College Democrats of Massachusetts. "We are going to have to live with the consequences of inaction."
Conventional wisdom suggests that getting bogged down over 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, DC, to demand green-friendly energy and environmental legislation.