Harris’ climate conference visit marks her latest appeal to crucial younger voters

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Vice President Kamala Harris attempted to reassert her role in the upcoming presidential election during a global climate summit over the weekend, hoping to mobilize young voters animated by tackling climate change.

Harris directly addressed young leaders in her remarks at the COP28 climate conference Saturday, saying: “As vice president I have had the privilege to meet with young climate leaders from across the United States and around the world. No matter where they come from, these young leaders have something in common. They understand the urgency of this moment. And they fight with conviction, knowing that we still have time to make a difference. So let us all share in their sense of urgency and their optimism.”

It’s a trend that’s taken shape over the course of the last year as the Biden campaign seeks to capitalize on the vice president’s influence among young voters.

Harris’ attendance at COP28, while last minute and heavily focused on the war between Israel and Hamas, is in line with her recent steps to ramp up public messaging on climate and her own experience on the issue dating to her years as district attorney in San Francisco.

Over recent months, Harris has hit the road to elevate the issues the administration is focused on, such as abortion access, gun violence, protecting voting rights and student debt relief.

“We believe her when she tells us that she’s fighting for us, and that’s the appeal of Vice President Harris. She can connect on a personal level with young people who have these interactions,” said Jack Lobel, the national press secretary for Voters of Tomorrow, a youth-led organization focused on mobilizing young voters.

But it remains to be seen whether Harris can motivate those key constituencies to back President Joe Biden in 2024.

Polling nationally and in battleground states alike suggests Biden, 81, is weak with young voters, as well as with Black and other voters of color. While Biden and Harris hold similar approval ratings, Harris’ ratings among these key subgroups have varied, suggesting views of the vice president are not as deeply entrenched.

Michele Weindling, political director at the youth climate group Sunrise Movement, called Harris attending COP28 “positive,” but stressed the vice president needs to be “a lot more bold.”

“It’s not enough anymore to just talk about the recognition of the crisis that we’re facing,” Weindling said.

“We need to hear a clear pathway forward for how she is also pressuring the president to use all of his powers at his disposal to fight the crisis, and also what she’s doing to try to encourage Congress to do the same. And I don’t think we have seen that clearly enough from her. I hope that we see more of that this coming week throughout COP and also throughout next year,” she added.

Several Harris insiders have optimistically pointed to the New York Times/Siena College polls of battleground states released last month, which showed “11 percent of Ms. Harris’s would-be supporters do not back Mr. Biden, and two-thirds of them are either nonwhite or younger than 30,” according to The Times.

Asked why young people should see themselves in a president who is old enough to be older than many of their grandparents, Harris was a little less formal in an exclusive interview with CNN.

“It is they,” Harris said in thinking about the election winner, “who are going to either benefit from or pay the price.”

Harris has also been able to connect with Gen Z voters, who are more racially diverse compared with other generations, by talking about her multicultural upbringing and becoming the nation’s first female, Black and South Asian vice president.

“She’s meeting younger voters where they are and speaking directly to young audiences,” a source close to the Biden campaign told CNN. “She’ll be playing a big, big role in speaking to young audiences, to mobilizing and energizing young audiences and making the case for young voters across the country.”

Harris has held more than 17 events this year focused on climate legislation passed under the Biden administration, according to a White House official.

“Hitting an international summit is not an end-all, be-all for mobilizing voters. In fact, it might not even move the dial at all. But it needs to be part of the pattern of the administration showing up and expressing urgency around climate demands and taking action when they can,” said Jamal Raad, a co-founder and the former executive director of clean energy advocacy group Evergreen Action, underscoring the significance of US leadership attending COP28.

Polls suggest that young voters are disappointed with the pace of actions on climate change. Asked about those concerns, senior administration officials have defended the administration, citing a list of actions, including deployment of clean energy; elements of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes key provisions to reduce carbon emissions; and the US’ recommitment the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think there are legitimate areas where the movement continues to push and find opportunities for movement by the federal government, and there are definitely places that if President Biden had 60 Democrats in the United States Senate, that he would’ve passed,” another senior administration official said.

“I think to the extent there are young people who have frustration with the composition of Congress not enabling the full reach of that agenda, there’s a way forward on that,” the official added.

Harris, senior administration officials said, planned to speak to young leaders on climate directly.

“Yes, this is a conference where heads of state are there, making some critical decisions, but again, there are those other folks – the advocates, the private sector, there’s philanthropy – and making sure that she’s speaking to those young leaders and they have a role at this table is going to be part of that,” a senior administration official said.

CNN’s Camila DeChalus, Ella Nilsen and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.

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