Most young people in the United States are optimistic that it is still possible to prevent the worst long-term impacts of climate change, according to a new survey of 13-29-year-olds by PBS NewsHour and Generation Lab, even as many point to multiple ways who, in their opinion, climate change will affect their personal life in the future.
In the days following this survey, world leaders gathered to take part in this year’s COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland to make decisions that will help shape our collective future on this planet. Scientists can predict how much warming is expected to increase over time and know what will help contain the most dramatic global warming, and yet uncertainty reigns: Will countries make ambitious enough promises to reach zero carbon emissions fast enough? Will they match their words with the actions demanded by youth activists protesting in Glasgow?
READ MORE: How the Global Climate Negotiations Work and What to Expect from the COP26 Summit in Glasgow
The feeling that we just don’t know yet if the global community will succeed can be reflected in this survey, which found that about a quarter of people are unsure if there is enough time to make a difference.
Samantha Burns, a 26-year-old from Kentucky, expressed optimism that collective action could mitigate the worst effects of this phenomenon, but acknowledged that people who try to do something about it “are still outweighed by people who just don’t care … and does nothing. “
Burns, who said she did not believe climate change would personally affect her future, cited a sense of inevitability.
“In my opinion, if climate change continues to harm us, it will not get better,” said Burns. “I mean there is no point in giving up what you want to do.”
Breaking down the numbers
Fifty-eight percent of respondents said the worst long-term effects of climate change can be prevented, 16 percent said they think it’s impossible, and 26 percent said they were not sure.
This relatively high degree of uncertainty – one in four respondents – stood out for Matin Mirramesani, who leads the polls as the Chief Operating Officer of Generation Lab. He noted that the option “uncertain” is often included in survey research, but it is rare to see it exceed more than 10 percent or so of the respondents who answered any question asked.
This uncertainty may indicate their sincerity about their understanding of climate change, as well as open questions facing the scientific community, Mirramesani said. This includes whether countries make the right choice.
Experts agree that coordinated international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially from richer countries that are primarily responsible for generating them, is the key to curbing climate change. But this does not necessarily negate the importance and influence of individual actions.
Sarah Rae, professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University, argues that there should be a middle ground that emphasizes the importance of one person’s choice, but also “keeps corporations off the hook.”
“The climate movement needs to come up with a good, understandable, believable, viable argument for why you are so important and 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 Worcester, pointed to a “persistent gender gap” in a survey that found that women in general were more likely than men to say that climate change would affect various aspects of their future.
“This is consistent with the research that was carried out there,” added Mirramesani.
All three experts noted that women in general tend to be more concerned about the impacts of climate change, and they are also more likely to be affected than men.
Seventeen percent of white people said they believed climate change would not affect their future, as did 10 percent of blacks 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 isolate people from the real threat of climate change that people tend to perceive as amorphous in the world. first place.
“Climate change is associated with other forms of oppression, abuse and inequality in the world, and people who experience these things will be much better targeted at the sources of their suffering,” Ray said. “All kinds of data show that people of color are more concerned about climate change.”
Individual action against international coordination
Compared to optimism that the planet will avoid a worse outcome, there were more differences among respondents in how the reality of climate change would affect the day-to-day aspects of their personal lives in the future.
- Most people stated that the reality of climate change will affect where they decide to live, how they use transportation, how much they travel, and what they buy as consumers.
- 15 percent said they don’t think climate change will affect their future at all.
- About a third of Gen Z respondents and millennials across all three age groups said climate change will affect whether they become parents and raise children.
- In several categories, men were 8–12 percentage points less likely than women to report that climate change would play a role in their decision-making.
As a scientist who works closely with environmentally friendly university students and monitors research that takes into account the views of the younger generation, Ray said she believed more respondents would state their belief that climate change will affect established categories of personal choice. in the survey.
Past research, she added, shows that young people tend to be more concerned about climate change than their older counterparts. But she felt that it didn’t have to “match the numbers of whether they thought it would affect [the] aspects of their life, ”- reflected in the survey.
“This puzzles me,” Ray said.
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans tend to be less concerned about climate change than people in other countries (although American millennials and Gen Zs report a greater interest in supporting climate activists and taking action than others generations). This finding is consistent with studies suggesting that people in historically colonized countries and marginalized communities in richer countries are more likely to suffer the effects of climate change and believe that its threats are significant.
The respondents to this survey were more likely to say that climate change will affect where they want to live, compared to other aspects of their lives. According to Ray, this discrepancy “shows the level of privilege” because “deciding where you live requires a certain level of mobility and choice about it,” which many in America have, depending on their wealth and resources.
READ MORE: Extreme weather conditions usually do not prompt Americans to relocate. That’s why
When it comes to categories such as food, shopping habits or parenting choices, Ray said the comparatively lower numbers may reflect a broader reluctance by some young people to “imagine any hardship, sacrifice, self-denial” associated with everyday life. options such as changing your diet or choosing public transportation.
“In my opinion, the data shows that people are not connecting the dots” between their daily lives and climate change, Ray said.
Clayton also highlighted the fact that a minority of people said climate change would affect what they eat.
This is despite the relatively long-standing efforts of environmentalists to encourage people to pay attention to the impact that dietary choices have on the environment. Food production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as biodiversity loss, deforestation and other negative impacts on the global ecosystem, according to the Yale Climate Change Program.
Veronique Daniel, a 20-year-old New Yorker, said that in her personal life, she takes steps – like turning off lights when not in use, recycling and buying local products – to reduce her own environmental impact. But she also pointed to people in power and corporations as players with influence to make a difference.
“I think we need a dramatic change, and they are not happening,” – said Daniel. “Many large corporations are looking to reduce their carbon footprint. And that’s a step – you can make a commitment, but are you really doing it? Some of them are, some are not. “
Satwik Bodepudi, an 18-year-old from South Carolina, said his family has invested in an electric car and that they are serious about recycling and composting in the spirit of reducing their own carbon footprint. He said he believes it is possible to prevent the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, but that will depend on whether people contribute to “actively try to make a difference.”
“When I say that it is possible, I mean that everything really depends on our cooperation,” Bodepudi said. “I know there are a lot of people who are trying to work on this and make it possible, but it really won’t go full steam ahead if there are still people who don’t care. It just slows down our progress. “
About a third of people said that climate change will affect their final choice to become a parent. Sofia Grillo, a 22-year-old Florida girl, said she recently questioned the “morality of parenthood,” even though she herself would like to have children. She is concerned that the effects of climate change will continue over time to the point that her children – and their children – will live in a world in which these effects are irreversible.
“Is it selfish for me to want to be a parent and have this great experience if, when I die, I leave my child in this apocalyptic world?” Grillo said.
Grillo added that she would like to start a family within the next five to ten years, so she has time to consider her options. She said that if things get better, “or if we all come together as a society to try to make it better,” that would push her towards fatherhood. But if things are worse, she might say, “Forget it, get a dog or something.”
The PBS NewsHour / Generation Lab survey was conducted on October 15-19, 2021, with 805 U.S. respondents aged 13 to 29, with a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.