Young People Are Demanding Labor Step Up On Climate Change Action, But Will Labor Listen?

In America, young voters turned swing seats like Georgia and Arizona from red to blue. So will the Labor Party start paying attention to young voters too?

On Monday, a group of young activists called Tomorrow Movement demonstrated outside Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s office, demanding Labor step up and make a plan to tackle the climate emergency. They were motivated by Joe Biden’s win over in the US, which they say shows “that a bold plan to cut emissions and create jobs can be hugely popular”.

They’re not alone in hoping Biden’s win could pressure Australia to take serious action on climate change too. Earlier this month, former Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd called on Scott Morrison to “pivot” from his gas-led recovery plan which Turnbull called “BS” and “piffle”.

The Tomorrow Movement — an organisation “fighting for a society with good jobs, great public services and a safe climate” — has no plans to change Morrison’s mind though.

“We are under no illusions that the Morrison Government will ever deliver what we need for our climate. That is why we are calling on Labor to urgently come up with a real policy, like the Climate Jobs Guarantee, before the next election. They cannot continue to sit on the fence.”

Biden’s key policies include eliminating carbon emissions from electricity by 2035, and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. He will also be recommitting to the Paris agreement, which Donald Trump withdrew from. The agreement works to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, and urges the signatories to make efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This means that now 70% of Australia’s trade will be with countries — US, Japan, China, Britain and South Korea — who have net-zero commitments that Australia itself does not.

It’s not that Morrison wants to do everything in his power to make sure we don’t achieve net-zero by 2050, he says he would like to meet that “as quickly as possible”, he just won’t mandate it.

But that’s a problem.

Scientists have been very clear. Australia needs to meet net-zero emissions by 2050 in order to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees.

The numbers are clear too. Deloitte Access Economics found that implementing policies to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and keeping to a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius would create 250,000 jobs and add $680 billion to the economy.

On the other hand, letting climate change go unchecked for the next 50 years will result in 880,000 less jobs and a loss of $3.4 trillion in economic opportunities.

It is today’s young people that will be most affected by the rise in temperatures, and such huge losses in job and economic opportunities.

Knowing this, young Americans played a large role in shaping Biden’s climate policies to what we see. Young organisers and activists of the Sunrise Movement pushed Biden to adopt the ‘net-zero by 2050’ promise after initially giving his climate policies an ‘F’ at the Democrat primaries. They helped him reach 3.5 million young voters in swing states, and now that he’s going to be President, they will demand that he adopt the Green New Deal, end fracking, and work on a “just transition for fossil fuel workers and communities”.

The thing is, Biden was aware that he needed the support of young people to win presidency.

Morrison, on the other hand, sees no such need.

The 2019 federal election was set to be a turning point for Australian politics. 18-24 year-olds had achieved record levels of voter enrolment. Labor was set to win with an ambitious climate policy, because it was after all, the ‘climate change election‘.

We all know how that turned out.

Labor lost the un-losable election.

Despite our compulsory voting system, voter turnout was at a record low, and seats that had high proportions of young voters also had the lowest turnouts. If youth turnout had been higher in some marginal seats, they could have swung. Older Australians — still the majority of Australian voters — on the other hand, turned out.

Former co-chair of the ‘yes’ campaign, Alex Greenwich, blamed the major parties for not including younger voters in the national discussion, even on the issue of climate change. The ALP’s national platform preceding the election only dedicated half a page to young Australians, and did not mention climate change in the section. The word “young” was not mentioned even once in the chapter on climate change. Instead, the political conversations on both sides centred around topics like franking credits, negative gearing, and other tax reforms — topics that largely concerned older Australians. More than a year later, not much has changed.

While Morrison’s government has shown contempt for young people who demand more on climate change, the Labor party has done little to to engage them. Despite politically motivated young Australians organising and coming out in record numbers to climate strikes, the Labor party has continued to paid little attention. Since the election, the ALP’s Twitter page has mentioned young Australians only twice, neither in relation to climate change.

Where Biden has said to young people “I see you. I hear you… I understand the urgency, and together we can get this done,” Albanese has said… well, nothing.

Thanks to the work of organisations like Sunrise Movement, the percentage of eligible young Americans who voted went from 45% in 2016, to 53% in 2020 despite the US’ notoriously complicated electoral registration and voting systems — and that’s a conservative estimate. Americans too young to cast their ballot did not sit back either, making their voice heard by volunteering, phone banking, and standing in for older poll workers at higher risk of COVID-19.

In particular, young voters of colour are credited with delivering wins in battleground states like historically Republican Georgia and Arizona.

And with 80% of Millenials and Gen Z viewing climate change as a serious existential threat, it was Biden’s climate policy that got many young people motivated to actually get out and cast their vote for him.
The single best way to increase enthusiasm for Biden among young voters is to talk about his climate plan. 41% of less motivated voters said thy were much more motivated to vote after hearing about Biden’s bold climate stance.

Since Labor’s loss in 2019, the party has failed to provide a viable alternative on the issue of climate change. The party has watered down its strong climate policy due to factional disagreements, and backed new ‘environmentally sustainable’ gas projects, and backed Australia’s coal exports. Bipartisan inaction on climate change continues.

Recognising the power displayed by strong youth voter blocs, Tomorrow Movement has put “Labor ‘on notice’” and demanded that “the Labor Party moves to cut their ties with big business and make a real plan for our future”.

It remains to be seen whether this will catch Labor’s attention and capitalise on Australia’s politically motivated youth.

Rashna is a young Muslim multi-hyphenate with lots of strong opinions. You can find her on Twitter @rashna_f if you want to hear them (or better yet, hire her).