American adults under the age of 35 have come of age in the decades since the “discovery” of man-made climate change as a major societal problem. The oldest of this cohort was twelve in 1988, when NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified at a Senate Energy Committee hearing that global temperature rise was underway and that human-produced greenhouse gases were almost certainly responsible. For this reason, the conventional wisdom holds that young Americans, growing up in a world of ever more certain scientific evidence, increasing news attention, alarming entertainment portrayals, and school-based curricula, should be more engaged with and concerned about the issue of climate change than older Americans.
However, contrary to this conventional wisdom, Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 are, for the most part, split on the issue of global warming and, on some indicators, relatively disengaged when compared to older generations.
Overall, the survey data offer no predictable portrait of young people when it comes to global warming: While less concerned about and preoccupied with global warming than older generations, they are slightly more likely to believe that global warming is caused by human factors and that there is scientific consensus that it is occurring. They are also somewhat more optimistic than their elders about the effectiveness of taking action to reduce global warming. And, while they are less open to new information about global warming than older generations, they are much more trusting of scientists and President Obama on the issue. However, they also share older generations’ distrust of the mainstream news media.
Of note, young evangelicals, an increasingly important group politically, place strong levels of trust in religious leaders as sources of information about global warming, though they are also trusting of scientists and President Obama.
Nationwide, liberals and conservatives exhibit wide differences in their beliefs about global warming, with conservatives more skeptical and less engaged than liberals, and this ideological divide is no different among young Americans.
Members of the current college-age generation (18-22 year-olds), who have grown up with even less scientific uncertainty about climate change, are somewhat more concerned and engaged than their slightly older 23-34 year-old counterparts; however, this does not hold across the board. Still, the data suggest untapped potential to engage young Americans on the issue of global warming. Two important caveats, however: