A majority of young people in the United States are optimistic that it’s still possible to prevent the worst long-term effects of climate change, according to a new poll among 13- to 29-year-olds from the PBS NewsHour and Generation Lab, even as many of them point to the multiple ways they believe climate change will affect their personal lives in the future.
In the days since this poll was conducted, world leaders have gathered to attend this year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, to make decisions that will help determine our collective future on this planet. Scientists can predict just how much warming is expected to increase over time, and know what will help keep the most dramatic global warming at bay, and yet uncertainty reigns: Will countries make ambitious-enough pledges to reach net-zero carbon emissions quickly enough? Will they match their words with actions, as youth activists protesting in Glasgow are demanding?
That feeling that we just don’t know yet whether the global community will succeed may be reflected in this poll, which found that around a quarter of people are unsure as to whether there’s enough time to turn things around.
Samantha Burns, a 26-year-old from Kentucky, expressed optimism that its worst effects could be tempered through collective action, but acknowledged that the people who are trying to do something about it “are still outweighed by people who just don’t care and ain’t doing nothing.”
Burns, who said she didn’t believe climate change would personally impact her own future, alluded to a sense of inevitability.
“The way I see it is, if climate change is going to continue to harm us, it probably ain’t going to get no better,” Burns said. “So I mean, there’s no use in not pursuing what you want to do.”
Breaking down the numbers
Fifty-eight percent of respondents said it is possible to prevent the worst long-term effects of climate change, 16 percent said they thought it is not possible and 26 percent said they were unsure.
That relatively high degree of uncertainty — one in four respondents — stood out to Matin Mirramezani, who oversees polling as the chief operating officer of the Generation Lab. He noted that the “unsure” option is often included in survey research, but that it’s rare to see it exceed more than 10 percent or so of respondents to any given question.
That uncertainty may speak to their candidness about how much they understand climate change, but also the open questions facing the scientific community, Mirramezani said. That includes whether nations will make the right choices.
Experts agree that coordinated international action to curb greenhouse emissions, particularly on the part of wealthier countries most responsible for generating them in the first place, is key to reining in climate change. But that doesn’t necessarily negate the importance and impact of individual action.
Sarah Ray, a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University, argues that there needs to be a middle ground that emphasizes why one person’s choices are significant, but also “doesn’t let corporations off the hook.”
“The climate movement has to come up with some good, understandable, believable, viable argument as to why you do matter and also that corporations need to change — [because] they are the most responsible,” Ray said.
How gender and race intersect in climate awareness
Men were more likely than women to express the belief that climate change would not affect them personally (20 percent versus 9 percent). Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, pointed to a “consistent gender gap” across the poll that suggested women were generally more likely than men to say that climate change would affect various facets of their future.
“It’s consistent with the research that’s been out there,” Mirramezani added.
All three experts noted that women in general tend to be more actively concerned about the impacts of climate change, and they also are more likely to be disproportionately impacted by those consequences compared to men.
Seventeen percent of white people reported believing that climate change wouldn’t influence their futures, as well as 10 percent of Black people and 4 percent of Asian people. Ray noted the broader reality of the ways that privilege — whether in the form of race, gender, income, education, or any other factor — can insulate individuals from feeling the true threat of climate change, which humans tend to perceive as amorphous in the first place.
“Climate change is connected to other forms of oppression and abuse and inequality in the world, and people who are experiencing those things are going to be much more attuned to the sources of their suffering,” Ray said. “All kinds of data shows that nonwhite people care more about climate change.”
Individual action vs. international coordination
Compared to the optimism that the planet can avoid the worst outcome, there was more variation among respondents when it comes to how the reality of climate change will impact everyday facets of their personal lives in the future.
- A majority of people said that the reality of climate change will influence where they decide to live, how they use transportation or how much they travel and what they buy as consumers.
- 15 percent said they did not think climate change will influence their future at all.
- Around a third of Gen Z and millennial respondents across all three age categories said climate change will influence whether they become a parent and raise children.
- In several categories, men were 8 to 12 percentage points less likely than women to report thinking that climate change would play a role in their decision-making.
As an academic who works closely with environmentally minded university students, and who keeps an eye on research that looks at the younger generations’ views, Ray said she assumed more respondents would’ve reported a belief that climate change would impact the personal choice categories laid out in the poll.
Past research, she added, suggests that younger people tend to report higher levels of concern over climate change compared to their older counterparts. But she felt that didn’t necessarily “match the numbers of whether they think it will affect [the] aspects of their lives” reflected in the poll.
“That sort of puzzles me,” Ray said.
Americans are generally less likely to express concern about climate change compared to people in other countries, according to Pew Research Center (although U.S. millennials and Gen Zers report a greater interest in supporting climate activists and taking action themselves compared to other generations). That finding is in line with research suggesting that people in historically colonized countries and marginalized communities within wealthier ones are both more likely to endure the consequences of climate change and believe its threats to be significant.
Respondents to this poll were more likely to say that climate change would impact where they choose to live compared to other facets of their lives. In Ray’s view, that disparity “reveals a layer of privilege” because “deciding where you live involves a certain level of mobility and choice over the matter,” which many in America have, depending on their wealth and resources.
When it comes to categories like food, buying habits or the choice to rear kids, Ray said that the comparatively lower figures could reflect a broader unwillingness among some younger people “to imagine any kind of deprivation, sacrifice, self-denial” associated with everyday choices like changing one’s diet or transit choices.
“To me, the data reveals people are not connecting the dots” between their day-to-day lives and climate change, Ray said.
Clayton also highlighted the fact that a minority of people said climate change would impact what they choose to eat.
That’s despite a relatively long-standing push among environmentalists to encourage people to note the impact that dietary choices have on the environment. Food production is a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as biodiversity loss, deforestation and other negative impacts on the global ecosystem, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Veronique Daniel, a 20-year-old from New York, said that she takes steps in her personal life — like turning off lights when she’s not using them, recycling and buying local — to reduce her own environmental impact. But she also pointed to people in power and corporations as players that have the influence to make a meaningful difference.
“I think what we need are drastic changes, and those are not happening,” Daniel said. “A lot of big corporations are committing to reducing their carbon footprint. And that’s a step — you can make the commitment, but are you actually doing it? Some of them are, some of them are not.”
Sathvik Bodepudi, an 18-year-old from South Carolina, said that his family has invested in an electric car and that they’re serious about recycling and composting in the spirit of reducing their own carbon footprint. He said he believes it’s possible to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, but that doing so will boil down to whether people do their part to “actively try to make a difference.”
“When I say it’s possible, I mean it all really depends on our cooperation,” Bodepudi said. “I know there’s a lot of people trying to work toward that and making it happen, but it’s not really going to go into full swing if there’s still people out there who don’t care about it. It just slows down all of our progress.”
About a third of people said that climate change would influence their eventual choice to become a parent. Sofia Grillo, a 22-year-old from Florida, said that she’s recently been questioning “the morality of parenthood,” even though she does personally want to have kids herself. She worries that the impacts of climate change will continue over time to the point that her children — and their children — will live in a world in which those consequences are irreversible.
“Is it selfish for me to want to be a parent and to have this great experience if, when I die, I’m leaving my child in this apocalyptic world?” Grillo said.
Grillo added that she’d want to start a family within the next five to 10 years, so she has time to consider her options. She said that if things appear to be getting better, “or if we’re all coming together as a society to try and make it get better,” that would push her in the direction of parenthood. But if things are worse, she may say, “Forget it, let’s get a dog or something.”
The PBS NewsHour/Generation Lab survey was conducted Oct. 15-19, 2021 with 805 U.S. respondents between ages 13 and 29 for a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.