05/15/2014 10:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rubio's Young Voter Problem

Imagine what the past few days have looked like to a member of the millennial generation. You hear from scientists that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has started to collapse, which could lead to a 15-foot rise in sea levels and swamp cities from Miami to Boston. You hear from reporters that Senator Mitch McConnell killed a noncontroversial, bipartisan bill that would have saved energy and put more money in people's pockets. And you hear from Senator Marco Rubio -- a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination -- say, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate."

Young people are probably starting to wonder what their future is going to look like.

These young people have grown up hearing the scientific evidence of climate change. They know their generation will pay a steep price for inaction. And while the Obama administration is beginning to tackle this crisis, most Republican leaders considering a run for the White House would prefer to keep our nation stuck in the dirty, fossil-fueled past.


On Tuesday, Senator Rubio tried to walk back a bit from his statement on Sunday denying climate science: "The issue is not whether the climate is changing, as it always is changing. The issue is whether there is legislative proposals before us that could do anything about it." Instead of facing facts, Rubio just keeps trying to come up with new ways to say that he doesn't believe the scientific consensus that humans are contributing to climate change.

It's hard to sound like a leader when you look like an ostrich.

Head-in-the-sand statements from key political leaders doesn't help inspire confidence among a voting bloc that trusts climate science. Only 3 percent of young voters think climate change isn't happening, according to a survey for the League of Conservation Voters that combined Democratic and Republican polling firms. Three percent!

Senator Rubio's stunningly uninformed statements might rally those 3 percent, but the vast majority of young voters will likely question why he discounts broad scientific consensus. They might also wonder why he isn't more concerned about what climate change is doing to his own constituents. The latest National Climate Assessment found that with just two feet of sea rise, 37,500 acres of Florida's farmland would be lost. Places, like Miami Beach, already experience regular flooding on clear days and it is only going to get worse -- especially if we have leaders, like Rubio, failing to act.

Early declarations in a presidential bid are designed to appeal to the base, and Rubio's comments will no doubt appeal to the Tea Party faithful as well as shadowy fossil-fuel-industry donors, who fund the so-called liberty movement, like the Koch brothers. Yet Rubio and other GOP candidates ignore millennials at their own peril. Former Governor Mitt Romney lost young voters by 26 percentage points in the last presidential race. Compare that to the loss rate among all voters: just 4 percentage points. When you combine the GOP's youth problem with its women and immigration problems, the path to the White House gets steeper and steeper.

Like all Americans, millennials favor leaders who understand their world. That includes facing a future with more extreme storms that could flood their homes and apartment buildings and more heat waves that make the air dirtier. They are the first American generation who expect to have a harder life than their parents. They want our nation to stay at the forefront of innovation, technological breakthroughs, and clean energy leadership, so they'll have a better shot at the American dream. Candidates who ignore those realities look out of touch.

And candidates who offer solutions are appealing. These voters already understand that low-carbon energy can help us combat climate change. They see wind farms when they drive home from college. They have friends who work in clean tech -- a sector that barely existed when I graduated high school. They know America has the know-how to tackle this challenge. The Obama Administration, for instance, is about to do the single most important thing it can to fight climate change: limit carbon pollution from power plants. This will move our nation closer to the clean energy future.

This is the millennials' future at stake -- the world they will raise their children in. Climate deniers are a part of the past. It's leaders who will take us forward who are worth supporting.

*Graphic used by permission from Organizing for America