by Mia Nelson '22
Snow falls on Dartmouth campus as a large black and yellow banner announces, “Climate is on the ballot.” Today is election day in the United States of America and across the country, polls are predicting the largest voter turnout in decades. At Dartmouth College, chalked up sidewalks urge students to vote and many organizations offer ‘walking buddies’ to the on-campus poll. The climate activism group Dartmouth Sunrise Movement urges walking students to, “Vote climate today.”
At Dartmouth, it would seem environmental policy is at the forefront of young people’s minds, since the college cultivates for itself an identity of the rugged environmentalist: when announcing new sports recruits, teams use the phrase “Welcome to the woods;” when students first arrive, the vast majority participate in a three day outdoor orientation program; the Dartmouth Outing Club is the largest collegiate outing club in the country, and runs hundreds of outdoor activities every year; the college’s official slogan is “A voice crying out into the wilderness.”
However, Theo Castellani ‘23 isn’t convinced that Dartmouth’s image actually corresponds to the actions of student voters. When asked if he believed his peers vote with climate in mind, he said “When I first got to campus, I certainly did.” As he actually moved through various Dartmouth spaces, he realized his assumptions were incorrect.
“Dartmouth gives off this liberal air, but the more time I spent there, the more I heard conversations taking place that not everyone shares those values,” said Castellani.
Nationally, according to the Environmental Voters Project, environmental voters who do share climate forward policy values tend to go to the polls less than any other issue group––in 2016, ten million self-identified “super-environmentalists” did not vote in the presidential election. However, youth voters are increasingly aware of the social justice and climate implications of our government––demonstrated through large support for the Green New Deal proposed environmental policy plan.
Castellani believes that a huge part of climate voters not getting to the polls has to do with trust, “There is the overwhelming feeling a vote doesn’t matter, especially for people who one of their main concerns is the environment,” he said. The environment, to him, seems to be an issue that politicians only pay lip service to. Casetellani hasn’t felt that any candidate truly has the environment as their central goal, which he believes impacts an environmentalist's trust in voting efficacy.
For Castellani, who lives and is currently residing near Homer, Alaska, the most important environmental legislation is local.
“My number one issue is to keep Pebble Mine out of Bristol Bay,” he said, referring to the proposed copper and gold mine in Alaska that would pose a major environmental threat to the country’s last prodigious fishery.
His most important policy point during elections is to protect oceans and rivers and streams. He has seen firsthand the impacts of climate change on his community.
“Everyone here is involved in fishing in some way; it’s everything down here,” he said.
This summer, while working on a fishing boat, Castellani saw the damage of rising ocean temperature on Pacific salmon.
“My captain and I have caught fish that have started to turn red because there is less dissolved oxygen in a heated ocean. They are literally drowning in the water, asphyxiating,” he said.
Castellani isn’t confident that either presidential candidate will protect the environment. In the democratic primary, he preferred Bernie Sanders.
“Bernie gave me the sense that he cared about the country and the environment and what is going to be left behind,” he said.
Castellani and his family think a lot about what natural spaces will endure, as they can see a receding glacier from their home. His mother has lived in Homer for twenty five years and can measure on her thumb how much the glacier has shrunk since her arrival.
“The people here care about the place they live, and they want to know that whatever they fish or hunt will be here in fifty years,” Castellani said.
Beckett Richardson ‘22 also votes with environmental policy as a central policy, however his policy focus is more national. Living in Vermont, local environmental policy is less important to him. “My area is not being threatened immediately,” he said.
Richardson, unlike Catellani, does not identify as a liberal voter. He is a centrist that leans towards libertarianism.
“The very liberal point of view is the Green New Deal… the conservative idea is that the climate isn’t changing or that it doesn’t matter,” he said.
But Richardson’s views are different; he favors environmental policy that uses existing economic trends to incentivize a shift towards green energy. His ideal environmental policy platform is the Baker-Shultz plan. The plan is championed by an organization Richardson is interested in called Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends and uses the government’s ability to tax energy sources based on the amount of carbon released in their production. Dividends from the tax would then be spread to the American people. Richardson supports the proposal because, as opposed to the Green New Deal, it doesn’t require additional governmental expansion.
“The government already has the structure to tax, while regulation gets tied up in the courts more,” he said.
He believes that a large reason environmental voters don’t go to the polls as frequently is because there are such different ways to be an environmentalist––from those like Castellani who are focused on local issues, to those who favor expensive policy packages, to fiscally-minded environmentalists like himself. He believes that candidates don’t cover the full range of environmentalists, and that his view on limiting government interference isn’t often centered in environmental policy discourse.
“During the primary, I really did not like how the Democrats were bragging about how much their climate plans cost. It seemed like [the candidates] were throwing around big expenses like it would never come back to anyone,” said Richardson.
In terms of getting more people to vote with the environment in mind, Richardson believes centering the opportunity for economic growth that green policies create would energize more voters. He found it off-putting that many Democratic nominee hopefuls boasted about how expensive their climate plans were.
To Richarson, Joe Biden is different.
“I like very much that Biden is focusing on the opportunity that a change in energy source can present,” he said.
“I think it is important to talk about environmental policy in terms of opportunity, not sacrifice because not so many people are in a position to vote for a sacrifice,” he said.
The banner seen outside Collis today urges students to vote with the climate in mind. For Castellani and Richardson, this means voting for Biden this year. Neither of them is completely satisfied, but an imperfect plan is better than no plan at all. While other issues such as the coronavirus pandemic might rank higher on a voter’s list of issues, the environment remains intimately linked with nearly every other social or economic policy. As Dartmouth recreationalists, students, and voters, we could all use a reminder to keep the environment in mind as we cast our ballots.
As Castellani says, “I can’t imagine how anyone can ever think about anything besides that.”