Many Americans entering middle age shrug off climate change -- poll

Just more than 20 percent of Generation X members are very concerned about climate change, a number that caught one researcher, who expected it to be higher, by surprise.

The age group, which ranges from about 32 to 52 years old, is believed to be one of the best-equipped generations to grasp the complexities of climate change and, perhaps, to do something about it. Its members are more educated in science than any group of Americans to precede them, providing a valuable complement for a generation that came of age as research on rising temperatures was expanding.

However, a group of roughly 5,000 Gen-Xers who entered a long-term survey project in 1985, when many of them were in seventh grade, express confusion today about the impacts of greenhouse gases and whether using fossil fuels is causing a problem.

In short, their views are similar to most Americans'.

"I guess I was a little bit more optimistic," Jon Miller, a social science professor at the University of Michigan, said of the results being published today in the Generation X Report.


He's been following the same respondents for about 25 years as part of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, a project funded by the National Science Foundation that tracks people through different phases of life.

Twenty-two percent of these respondents said last year that they were highly concerned about climate change, while 42 percent were moderately concerned. Thirty-seven percent said they were less concerned or not at all concerned.

Level of understanding drops

Those numbers are similar to the results from 2009, the last time the group of Gen-Xers was asked about climate. While the group's concern over the issue was roughly the same in both years, there was a larger drop in the level of understanding about climate change, which Miller believes could be linked to respondents' increasingly hectic schedules.

In 2011, just 11 percent said they were very well-informed about the topic, a 5-point drop since 2009, when congressional debate about capping carbon dioxide was front and center. There were also declines in respondents' enthusiasm, with people who follow climate closely and moderately closely reporting small drops in their attentiveness.

Almost 45 percent of Gen-Xers are considered scientifically literate, a number that eclipses the American population in part because Generation X has more college-educated members than any other generation in history, Miller says. Twenty-eight percent of all Americans are scientifically literate.

But that isn't helping them grasp a climate issue that is asking Americans to make changes now for an environmental benefit that is uncertain and far in the future. Researchers had expected that the family-age Generation X might be more concerned about the future climate impacts on its children.

"Not so," the paper says. "Generation X young adults without minor children at home were slightly more alarmed about climate change than were the parents of minor children. The difference is small, but it is in the opposite direction than expected."

And while small numbers of politically active Gen-Xers can be found supporting and opposing the idea that climate change is happening, a large group in the middle tend to be ambivalent. For example, 72 percent expressed varying degrees of uncertainty when confronted with this statement: "There is not enough scientific evidence to support claims that the Earth is getting warmer."

"These data indicate that the young adults in Generation X who will have to deal with these issues during the remaining decades of their lives are genuinely conflicted on the issue," the report says.

A case of 'issue fatigue'?

Miller believes many respondents may be suffering from "issue fatigue," because climate change has been a point of tiring political discussion for more than five years. The weak economy and the busy lifestyle of thirtysomethings are also competing for attention.

"If you are really very busy and the choice is do you have to get your kid to soccer or to ballet ... or do you sit down and read a report on the carbon budget, you know the carbon budget may lose," Miller said.

It turns out that Generation X members are very similar in their climate views to people younger and older. A Pew Research Center poll in November found that 39 percent of Gen-Xers saw climate change as a very serious issue, compared with 27 percent who saw it as somewhat serious and 32 percent who said it's "not a problem."

That's within a few points of the younger Millennial Generation and the older Boomer Generation. But the oldest Americans, in what's known as the Silent Generation, see things with less concern.

"The younger generations are much more likely to say the Earth is warming because of human activity than older generations," said Leah Christian, a senior researcher with Pew.

Only 22 percent of the Silent Generation believe human activity is causing climate change, according to the Pew poll. That's 19 points lower than Generation X.

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