October 4, 2019 | By Ruby Scanlon

The Generational Divide Over Climate Change

Just a few weeks ago, environmental advocate Greta Thunberg delivered an address to the UN General Assembly in which she demanded that member countries take extreme and immediate action to combat climate change. Many remarked on her passion, anger, and desperation, but if one thing was noted the most, it was Thunberg’s age. At just 16 years old, Thunberg has become a highly popular and outspoken environmental activist, speaking often of the inaction of those in positions of power. This frustration speaks to a larger trend, in that younger generations tend to feel more strongly about the issue of climate change than their older counterparts.

According to data from the 2019 Chicago Council Survey, a majority of Americans under the age of 45 describe climate change as a critical threat (63% of 18-29 year-olds, 60% of 30-44 year-olds). These numbers come into contrast with responses from Americans 45 years and older. Within this particular demographic, just half of those aged 45 to 64 say it’s a critical threat, and only a plurality of those 65 years or older hold that belief. Furthermore, 21% of those 65 years and older would argue that climate change is actually not an important threat.

Beyond perceptions of threat criticality, ideas about how to confront climate change are equally variable across age groups. Amongst Americans 18 to 29 years old, 58 percent believe that climate change is a serious and pressing problem and that we should begin taking steps now, even if it involves significant costs. In contrast, less than half of Americans 45 and older share this same belief (48% of 45-64 year olds and 47% of those 65 and older). Moreover, while only 10 percent of those 18 to 29 years old hold the belief that we should not take any steps to combat climate change that would have economic costs, nearly twice as many people aged 45 years and older (19% of 45-64 year olds and 20% of those 65 years and older) hold that belief.

Despite this gap, looking at survey results from the past decade, the Council’s data suggests that all age groups have grown increasingly worried about climate change, though that increase has been most dramatic among 18 to 29 year olds. In fact, as of 2010, 18 to 29 year olds were the least concerned about climate change with only 26% of that age group finding climate change to be a “serious and pressing problem”. In 2019, that number jumped to 59%, making 18 to 29 year olds by far the most concerned by the issue. While the spread of information and awareness has caused increasing concern among all Americans, the youngest Americans are those particularly troubled by the phenomenon’s potentially catastrophic consequences.

Many have come to term the generational divide around climate change beliefs the “global warming age gap”- and many more are deeply concerned about its implications for climate change policy. Activists like Thunberg have made it alarmingly clear to her peers that when her generation finally achieves positions of power, it will be far too late to avert the most serious impacts of climate change. To quote her UN address directly, Thunberg asserted to member delegates, "the eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you." With more and more young people feeling failed by those older and in power, it has become clear that age is an incredibly salient issue in regard to climate change. Activists are now working to close the divide by bringing more attention to the issue through the use of global student strikes. Just last week, millions of students world-wide walked out from their classrooms to demand renewed action on climate change. With rapidly growing demonstrations like these, it is clear the world’s youth are desperate to close this gap, as it might be the only hope to effectively address this critical threat.

For more on climate change, read Chicago Council Senior Fellow Dina Smeltz’s brief on climate change.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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