President Trump’s decision on Monday to begin the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement prompted outrage from the Democratic presidential candidates, who may try to use the existential threat of climate change to motivate voters.
Politically, fighting climate change is particularly important to young voters, who will live to see its worst effects and are a key part of the Democratic base.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been especially vocal, pivoting from his signature economic message to emphasize climate change in the final sprint to the Iowa caucuses in February.
Iowa has already been hard hit by the effects of climate change, including devastating floods. But it is also home to a large wind power industry, and Sanders campaign officials said they planned to emphasize what Iowans could personally do to help combat climate change.
“Iowans cannot ignore this issue — they’re forced to face it every spring and every winter,” said Misty Rebik, Mr. Sanders’s Iowa state director. “So we’re prioritizing those concerns, and prioritizing them by providing a sense of hope and optimism.”
After the climate summit this Saturday, Mr. Sanders plans to campaign in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, home to Representative Steve King, a Republican, and many of the state’s most conservative voters.
“We’re not just talking about climate in Iowa City and Des Moines,” said Bill Neidhardt, the campaign’s deputy Iowa director. “We’re going right to Steve’s district to talk about it because we believe it wins there as well.”
The other top-polling candidates in Iowa — former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. — also used Mr. Trump’s announcement on Monday as an opportunity to emphasize climate policy.
“As the climate crisis worsens each day and California burns and Iowa floods, Trump continues to abandon science and our international leadership,” Mr. Biden tweeted.
In a morning interview on MSNBC — shortly before Mr. Trump made his announcement, which had been expected — Mr. Buttigieg, who has gained ground in Iowa, said the Paris Agreement “should be viewed as a floor, not a ceiling.”
“I actually see an opportunity in this, as bad as it has gotten with both how close we are to catastrophe in climate and the disappearance of U.S. leadership from the world stage,” he said. “I also see in that the opportunity to do something important, which is, restore American credibility.”
Several lower-polling candidates hoping for breakthroughs also weighed in.
Since Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who had made climate change the singular focus of his campaign, dropped out of the presidential race in August, none of the Democratic candidates have fully taken up his mantle. Ms. Warren seemed poised to do so in September, when she released a climate plan explicitly modeled on Mr. Inslee’s, but she has been largely focused on health care recently.
The partisan divide on climate change is well known, but there are also stark generational gaps. Young people have been on the front lines in demanding action, and many of them see it as a key issue in determining their vote.
It is an important subject for millennials — expected to be the largest age bloc in the 2020 election — but even more so for Generation Z, whose members were born after 1996 and will be playing a significant role in a presidential election for the first time.
In surveys and academic research, members of Generation Z, who could account for one in 10 voters next year, consistently rank climate change as one of their top two priorities, rivaled only by gun violence.