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Young Virginians ready to vote with climate change in mind

A person wearing a gray dress and glasses stands in front of the John Marshall Courts Building in downtown Richmond
Layla Hasanzadah, now a first-year in college, joined a climate-action lawsuit against the state of Virginia as a youth. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Layla Hasanzadah is a first-year student at George Mason University. She’s studying neuroscience and is an EMT, but that’s not all. 

“I’m the lead plaintiff in a climate legal action case against my state,” Hasanzadah said. 

The case was brought by 13 young people represented by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit that works on similar cases nationwide. 

Hasanzadah told VPM News her family has been hit financially by extreme rainfall events, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said are on the rise in Virginia due to a warming climate. According to NOAA, Virginia’s wettest five-year span on record is 2016-2020 — while 2018 broke the record for most rainfall in a year. 

“We’ve had such extreme flooding that we’ve had to remodel our basement entirely. There was mold in the basement, there was standing water,” Hasanzadah said. 

She also said she suffers from climate anxiety, a concept that’s been the subject of research and discussion among psychologists for at least a decade. 

Hasanzadah said her personal experiences led her to a desire to make a change — but as a minor at the time the lawsuit was filed, she knew she couldn’t vote. So, the courts became a way to push for change in state government. 

“People will ask, ‘Why, though? What [does the state] have to do with climate change?’” Hasanzadah said. 

According to the lawsuit, Hasanzadah and her co-plaintiffs sued the state for permitting fossil fuel projects, tying the emissions caused by those projects to the climate crisis. They argue those emissions have harmed them physically, mentally and monetarily. 

An August 2021 report from the International Panel on Climate Change specifically tied the broad range of climate effects seen worldwide to human-made emissions — basically, everything we’ve burned since the Industrial Revolution. The IPCC also said to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, emissions must be cut drastically and quickly. 

The case ended up being dismissed, due to sovereign immunity, a doctrine that protects the state from lawsuits. Attorneys from Our Children’s Trust filed an appeal in Richmond Circuit Court on Oct. 27.  

Hasanzadah said it felt empowering to act on climate change. Seeing the case thrown out was disappointing, she said, but since she’s 18 now, she can hold politicians accountable directly at the ballot box. 

She said she expects them to commit to specific and far-reaching climate policies.  

“‘Cause it seems like a ton of teenagers do, but not some of the candidates who are actually running,” Hasanzadah said. 

Growing enthusiasm

In a spring 2021 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of Gen Zers reported that they had talked about the need for climate action at least once in recent weeks, and they’re more likely to see or engage with climate change content on social media. 

“They talked about that as motivating them to learn more about the issue. They also talked about it being a source of anxiety that they feel around the future,” said Cary Funk, director of science and society research at Pew. 

Camille Kidwell and Kristine Kang are also college first-years — Kidwell at Loyola University in Chicago and Kang at the University of Virginia. They are two of the co-founders of Green Teenz RVA — a nonprofit they started as students at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico.  

Green Teenz sponsors clean up events, organizes documentary viewings and holds events with politicians like Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) and Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico). 

Like Hasanzadah, Kidwell and Kang weren’t yet voting age when they decided to get involved in climate advocacy. 

“We still felt like our voices mattered and that we really wanted to make a change,” Kidwell said. 

Kidwell and Kang said they felt a disconnect between discussions they were having with peers about climate change and messages on the subject from political figures. 

“I at least felt like a lot of politicians have been kind of neglecting the issue or basically treating it as a political issue when it’s something that’s going to be impacting many, many groups of people,” Kang said. 

Youth turnout, particularly in midterms, trended downwards from peaks in the 1960s to the early 2000s. But Census data shows 30% of young Americans turned out to vote in the 2018 midterms, almost double the 16% recorded in 2014. Along with high turnout in 2020, the youth vote appears to be as strong as it’s been since the 60s. 

Kidwell, Kang and Hasanzadah agreed that politicians should be talking about what they’ll do to address climate change in order to reach young people, and they hope their work will teach peers how casting a vote with climate in mind can be an empowering action.  

Splits among Republicans by age are broad

Pew research also found Millennials and their younger counterparts were more likely than older Americans to support farther-reaching climate policies, like phasing out gasoline automobiles. 

Differences by age were particularly pronounced among Republicans — less than half of Gen Zers who identified as Republican in the 2021 survey said they supported expanding the use of coal, fracked gas and offshore drilling, while majorities of Boomers and Gen Xers did. 

Thomas Turner is the chairman emeritus of the Virginia Young Republican Federation, an organization for GOP members 40 years of age and under — Millennials and Gen Z. As a Hampton Roads resident, Turner is keenly aware of rising seas. 

“We have to start taking these things seriously,” Turner said. 

He said that, as a Christian, he feels a responsibility to be a good steward of Earth.  

Turner’s also a member of the Conservatives for Clean Energy advisory board, which encourages Virginia Republicans to support renewables, nuclear power and natural gas — a carbon-based fuel that emits less CO2 than coal. Virginia’s transition from coal to gas has kept the state’s emissions steady even as demand for electricity has increased, but that transition is effectively complete, with natural gas accounting for 61% of the Commonwealth’s utility scale generation in 2020. 

It’s what Turner calls an “all-of-the-above" approach – a phrase recently used by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to tout his administration’s Virginia Energy Plan. That plan puts an emphasis on nuclear power and natural gas. 

Turner said he hopes Republican politicians talk more about clean energy on the campaign trail and the jobs and revenue it can create. He pointed to House of Delegates Majority Leader Terry Kilgore’s (R-Lee County) efforts to bring more clean energy to Southwest Virginia. 

“I think that there is a strong appetite on the right for this, and it’s actually becoming a little more bipartisan,” Turner said. 

Despite that, Funk said the data shows that party affiliation continues to be the biggest deciding weight for most Americans when it comes to climate change. 

“We want to talk about age differences, which have also been longstanding in terms of concern about climate change, but they just kind of get dwarfed by the partisan differences,” Funk said. 

Even if young Democrats and Republicans can see eye to eye on the need to cut emissions, they won’t necessarily agree on how to get there — or on the urgency of the situation. 

Preparing for the polls

Hasanzadah said she hopes her story encourages people going to the polls to not just vote for their own interests — she wants people to think of her co-plaintiffs, most of whom are still underage. 

“It takes a lot of energy to get to a point where you even have a sliver of power as a young adult who doesn’t have the ability to vote,” Hasanzadah said. “It’s scary, but it is your responsibility to vote for the people that you think will protect not only our children right now, but also our children’s children.” 

As for Kidwell and Kang, they both had their absentee ballots on hand. 

“I haven’t filled it out yet, but I will. And I’m super excited,” Kang said. 

Voters nationwide head to the polls on Nov. 8. 

Disclosure: A plaintiff in the climate-action lawsuit is related to a VPM News staff member. That employee was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.