Millennials seem no more concerned about warming than their elder Americans

By Evan Lehmann | 04/30/2015 08:32 AM EDT

Young adults are no more likely to believe in man-made climate change than older Americans, according to a poll released yesterday that challenges assumptions about the strength of the millennial generation’s views on warming.

Young adults are no more likely to believe in man-made climate change than older Americans, according to a poll released yesterday that challenges assumptions about the strength of the millennial generation’s views on warming.

The Harvard University survey found that 55 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 say that climate change is mostly caused by emissions from cars and industrial activity. That’s similar to the findings of other polls that ask Americans of all ages about their belief in rising temperatures.

Millennials led a protest in New York’s Central Park last September demanding “system change, not climate change,” but a new poll suggests they’re not likely to change much. | Photo by Thomas Altfather Good, courtesy of Flickr.

The results seem to test the idea held by some climate advocates, including President Obama, that warming should be viewed more urgently among young Americans, who will have to endure predicted large changes coming in their lifetimes.


"They are not outliers," John Della Volpe, polling director for Harvard’s Institute of Politics, said of millennials. "They are more in line with the public on this issue than I think they have been in the recent past."

They also echo older Americans with their skepticism. The poll found that 20 percent of young adults say climate change is "a proven fact" but that it’s caused by natural forces, not human-induced emissions. An additional 23 percent say it’s "a theory that has not yet been proven."

"I was personally very surprised to see that the young people … were very similar to the national survey," said Ellen Robo, a Harvard student who helped with the poll. She said that 50 percent of Americans of all ages say humans are responsible for climate change.

The findings do point to one small uptick. This year, 32 percent of millennials say the government should do more to curb climate change, even if it hurts economic growth. Last year, that number was 27 percent, Della Volpe said.

‘Shocking’ similarities to Grandpa

It’s a common misperception that young Americans are more attuned to climate change than their older counterparts, said Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

"Absolutely, that is the perception. But it diverges from reality," he said. "It’s shocking. It’s absolutely shocking. But every time we’ve looked at it, the answer comes back no."

Why isn’t there more urgency from a group that will live to see whether scientists are right about rising seas, heavier downpours and other impacts?

Maibach’s hypothesis has to do with exposure. Media coverage on climate change has declined since 2007, he said. Research released last week by his center shows that most people see one news story a month about climbing temperatures. Discussions with family and friends occur even less.

"Being just an ordinary American, you almost never hear about the issue," Maibach said.

Even if young people did care much more about climate change than older Americans, it remains unclear whether that would alter political outcomes. They often don’t vote in midterm election cycles.

Obama and environmentalists tried in vain to get youth voters to the polls last year, in part by calling Republicans climate deniers. Last summer, Obama urged a large college crowd in California to make belief in climate change "a prerequisite for your vote" (ClimateWire, June 16, 2014).

It didn’t work.

Young Republicans show urgency

Voters younger than 30 accounted for just 13 percent of the electorate in 2014, a tepid showing for the millennial generation, which is now the largest segment of voters in the United States. Older, and smaller, categories of Americans easily outpaced young people at the polls. Voters aged 30-44 accounted for 22 percent of the electorate, and those between 45 and 64 dominated with 43 percent (ClimateWire, Nov. 10, 2014).

Millennials might not vote consistently, but when they do, they tilt heavily toward Democrats. That was revealed in historic proportions in 2008 and 2012, when large majorities of 18-to-29-year-olds voted for Obama. It was the first time in the modern era that such a lopsided outcome had happened, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Sixty-six percent of that age group supported Obama in 2008, and 60 percent voted for him in 2012.

And that came from a generation that doesn’t fall for political brands. Half of millennials say they’re independent, showing a strong streak of nonconformity. They are the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history and the most educated of any age group. They are also the least likely to believe in God, to call themselves patriotic or to say they’re environmentalists.

On climate change, millennials overall might not differ much from other Americans. For example, Democrats tend to believe that the world is getting warmer, no matter how old they are. But there is one exception.

Millennial Republicans, and moderate Republicans, are more apt to believe in climate change than older Republicans. About half of young Republicans (49 percent) say global warming is happening, compared with 33 percent of Republicans older than 65, according to a Pew poll in 2011.

The gap between those who say it’s caused mostly by man is even larger. Twenty-nine percent of millennial Republicans say humans are responsible, compared with 9 percent in the oldest category.