Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

Biden needs his young climate activists. But they’re angry about the war in Gaza.

President Joe Biden’s attempt to lock down many of the young, climate-minded voters who supported him in the last election is running aground over the war between Israel and Hamas.

Biden promised to be the “climate president” when he won the White House four years ago — and he’s making fresh attempts to woo green activists again, including by taking the dramatic step of halting new permits for natural gas exports. But that message is in danger of being drowned out as many of those youthful environmentalists voice their frustration with Biden’s refusal to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The tension over Biden’s climate outreach is just one example of the growing divide between the president and his progressive base over his staunch support for Israel — a dynamic that is also ripping across issues such as race and abortion rights. Polls show that younger voters are disproportionately likely to support both aggressive climate action and the rights of the Palestinians, complicating Biden’s efforts to get them to flock to the polls for him in November.

Pro-cease-fire outbursts have interrupted a series of public appearances by Biden and his aides in recent weeks, including a climate speech Tuesday by USAID Administrator Samantha Power where someone in the audience urged her to “resign and speak up.”

“27,000 people have been killed,” the person called out during the former U.N. ambassador’s speech on “climate shocks” at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg Center in Washington. “You know what would cause a lot of climate shock — is the bombardment of Gaza.”

Earlier this month, audience members chanted “cease-fire now” during Biden’s remarks on extremism and democracy at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the 2015 murders of nine Black churchgoers by a white supremacist. Last week, more than a dozen protesters yelling slogans such as “genocide Joe” repeatedly interrupted an abortion-rights rally that Biden was holding in Virginia with Vice President Kamala Harris.

“I understand their passion,” Biden responded during the South Carolina appearance. “I’ve been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza. I’ve been using all that I can to do that.”

Biden’s foreign policy challenge will grow tougher in the coming days as his administration contemplates a military response to last week’s drone strike in Jordan that killed three U.S. service members. Any reprisal for that attack — which the U.S. has blamed on the Iranian-backed Islamic Resistance in Iraq — could add to the turmoil of a region roiled by Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing Israeli war in Gaza.

Rancor over the war also intruded into the opening days of last year’s United Nations climate summit in Dubai.

The president needs to heed the progressive activists’ message, one youth climate leader said.

“I shouldn’t have to say how important morally it is for a cease-fire, but it’s also important politically if that’s all this administration cares about,” said Elise Joshi, executive director of youth-led environmental group Gen Z for Change.

She added: “Your base is asking for a cease-fire and an end to fossil fuels. You did one of them [last week]. Good job. Now it’s time for a cease-fire.”

Biden has already had a tenuous relationship with some young climate activists, despite his vows to slash carbon pollution and the hundreds of billions of dollars he is pouring into green-energy technologies such as wind power and electric cars.

They have expressed grave disappointment in several of his administration’s pro-fossil fuel actions, including decisions to greenlight the Willow oil project in Alaska and accede to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s demands to clear the path for the Mountain Valley gas pipeline. In addition, his agencies have approved far more oil and gas drilling permits on federal land than Donald Trump had during his presidency, POLITICO reported this week based on newly released data.

Now Biden’s team is attempting something of a reset with his climate base. Last week, when the administration announced its pause on gas export permits, the White House described the move as an answer to pleas from “younger people” who want the U.S. to more aggressively shift off the fossil fuels that are heating the planet.

But Gaza is complicating that courtship.

“It’s undoubtedly an amazing decision,” Joshi said of the natural gas permit pause. “At the same time, I am unequivocally calling for a cease-fire, and it doesn’t change that. I think that young people are largely feeling the same way.”

“It’s clear that young people are really, really disillusioned with this presidency — disillusioned with [Biden’s] choices on climate and Gaza and beyond that to foreign policy and across the board,” said Keanu Arpels-Josiah, an 18-year-old organizer with youth climate group Fridays for Future NYC, which has echoed calls for a cease-fire and release of hostages. “We really need to invigorate our base broader than just, ‘I’m better than the other person.’ We need him to represent the issues that matter to us if we’re really going to get people to turn out.”

Biden’s decision to pause the gas permits was already going to be an electoral gamble. Republicans have denounced the move as a threat to the U.S. economy and say it’s undermining efforts to lessen Europe’s energy dependence on Russia amid that country’s war in Ukraine — two potentially potent issues for his reelection campaign.

The pause has one big potential political upside, though: It may help Biden win back the climate supporters who had backed him in 2020, when he adopted what was seen as the most ambitious presidential platform on climate change in U.S. history.

Danielle Deiseroth, executive director of liberal think tank and polling firm Data for Progress, said young voters are being “cross-pressured” on Israel and Gaza. While 62 percent of voters between ages 18 and 29 favored a limit on natural gas exports compared with 19 percent that opposed it, that same demographic feels strongly about Biden’s stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict, she said.

A December New York Times/Siena College poll of registered voters found that 46 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 “strongly disapproved” of Biden’s response to the situation, while 26 percent “somewhat disapproved” — with 45 percent finding Biden “too supportive of Israel.” Forty-nine percent of that age group trusted Trump to handle it compared with 30 percent for Biden.

But there are potential political traps for Biden if he leans too far in the other direction. A January Harvard Harris poll showed that 80 percent of voters backed Israel over Hamas, including 57 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 70 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds.

Biden campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt said that “you’ll see us communicate about climate across all channels,” but did not comment on the president’s positioning on the Middle East conflict.

The president needs these young voters in a general election contest against any Republican, particularly Trump, who is polling ahead of him in key states and already said he would overturn the export pause if he is reelected. (Trump has not offered concrete plans for what he would do about the Israel-Hamas fighting, beyond writing on Truth Social that the “attack would NEVER have happened if I was President.”)

Despite winning the popular vote by 7 million votes, Biden’s 2020 margins over Trump were thin enough in the crucial swing states that he will need to bring those voters back into the fold — his victory amounted to a 44,000-vote advantage in Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin. A January Economist/YouGov poll found that 93 percent of 2020 Biden voters ranked climate change as either a very or somewhat important issue, compared with 37 percent of Trump voters.

Last week’s announcement of the Energy Department’s temporary halt on new gas export permits is unlikely to sway voters on its own, but could help shift climate activists away from their combative posture, Deiseroth said. She said it could also get them to focus on opposing the potential alternative: Trump and his fossil fuel cheerleading.

“The way that Biden wins in 2024 is by holding together this coalition from 2020, which included young, very enthusiastic and very well-educated climate activists,” Deiseroth said. “It’s becoming a very precarious test.”

Before last week, Biden had been facing pressure from climate activists to nix new permits for liquefied natural gas export terminals, which opponents argue would lock in decades of additional fossil fuel use when the world needs to start drastically slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Until Biden pivoted, climate and environmental justice groups had planned sit-ins at the Energy Department to prod Biden into more aggressive action.

The heat from climate activists has come despite Biden’s undeniable accomplishments, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes more money for deploying clean energy and electric vehicles — at least $369 billion — than any other law in U.S. history. But many voters are unaware of those wins.

Just 31 percent of voters younger than 30 years old were satisfied with Biden’s climate change accomplishments, according to a November survey by public opinion polling firm Hart Research Associates. But it found that percentage could rise to 48 percent with proper messaging, such as by suggesting Biden’s policies will reduce the cost of clean energy so everyone can access it. Climate Power, an advocacy group, last fall launched an $80 million campaign to raise awareness of Biden’s climate achievements.

Biden’s record on climate provides “such sharp, sharp contrast to Trump” that it will be “a huge motivator” for young people at the polls even if they do not agree with all the administration’s broader policies, said Heather Hargreaves, deputy executive director of campaigns for Climate Power.

“In the last few election cycles we’ve been having record turnout, and I think one of the reasons for that is that Donald Trump is just so extreme,” she said.

But Biden’s climate achievements were overshadowed last year by his administration’s greenlighting of the Willow oil project, which would tap 600 million barrels of oil reserves over its lifetime, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry gas through parts of Appalachia and the East Coast, said Michele Weindling, political director for the activist group the Sunrise Movement.

While those decisions dismayed young voters, Weindling said the gas export salvo buoyed them. But the Biden administration is still falling short of her peers’ expectations on other issues, like its handling of the Israel-Hamas war, she said.

“We need to see a lot more obviously to be able to feel confident that young people don’t continue to feel alienated in this election cycle,” Weindling said. “Steps like [the pause] are proof that the administration does understand how critical it is to build trust and support from our generation and to mobilize us to the ballot box. I think the next step here is obviously around Gaza.”

The “fallout” from Willow may have motivated the White House to pause new export terminal permits, said Alex Haraus, an environmental activist whose TikTok videos helped spread awareness about both issues, citing falling approval ratings of the administration’s handling of the environment after it approved Willow. The 25-year-old Colorado-based influencer participated in White House-led dialogue with activists in the run-up to last week’s decision.

Haraus said he is heartened that more people across ideologies increasingly support more aggressive climate action, but also noted people care about many issues, not just climate.

“People are still mad about the genocide going on in Gaza. I can’t blame them for that and wouldn’t anticipate this [pause] decision to have an impact on people who care about that,” Haraus said. “But I do think it will win points with everybody that cares about the climate.”

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