The Age Gap in Environmental Politics

by |February 4, 2019

Anyone who studies public opinion about the environment will tell you that a long-running trend is that young people care more than old people about protecting the environment. It is not an attitude that changes with age, because support for protecting the environment is gradually increasing among older people. This is probably because once young environmentalists are growing older, and old anti-environmentalists are dying off.  In a Gallup poll about global warming last spring, R.J. Reinhart reported that:

“…70% of Americans age 18 to 34 worry about global warming…This compares with 62% of those 35 to 54 and 56% who are 55 or older. – Public concern about global warming is evident across all age groups in the U.S., with majorities of younger and older Americans saying they worry about the problem a great deal or fair amount. However, the extent to which Americans take global warming seriously and worry about it differs markedly by age, with adults under age 35 typically much more engaged with the problem than those 55 and older. The biggest generational gap is visible in the belief that global warming will pose a serious threat in one’s own lifetime…The second-largest age gap comes with the belief that global warming is caused by human activities.”

The good news is that environmental issues seem to be behaving like issues such as gay marriage, criminal justice reform, and marijuana legalization. There is growing support for changing how society addresses these issues. The attitudes and beliefs of young people about how the world works is leading to social change that in turn is eventually reflected in policy change. The bad news is that carbon pollution in the atmosphere accumulates over time and that global warming will take a long time to mitigate. Possibly more irreversible is the loss of biodiversity caused by habitat destruction. Policies may change gradually but the climate crisis is no longer emerging gradually and an issue for the future. The impacts of a warming planet on extreme weather and sea level rise are already being seen. The destruction of biodiversity has impacts that we are only beginning to understand.

A poll conducted last summer for the Better World Campaign and the United Nations Foundation provides evidence of the growing importance of environmental issues for young people. According to the survey by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research Associates, “voters ages 17-35 (Generation Z and Millennials) view the most important international concerns for the United States to address in 2018 as environmental (39%) and human rights (38%) issues.” The global economy was considered important by only 26 percent of the survey’s respondents. While economic concerns are generally ranked lower than environmental issues when the economy is doing well, it seems clear from many surveys that younger people share a collective concern about the future of our home planet.

At one point, the generational gap in American environmental attitudes was masked by the growing partisan distinctions on environmental issues, especially climate change. One of the best analyses of environmental partisanship was written by University of Maryland Professor David Karol and published by the Niskanen Center in May, 2018. Karol traces the growing degree of environmental partisanship in Congress as Democrats came to favor stronger protection for the environment while Republicans favored weaker protection. Karol argues that one factor moving even Republicans back into the environmentalist camp is the impact of younger Republicans. In his report, Party Polarization on Environmental Issues: Prospects for Change, Karol observed that:

“Millennials were raised in an era in which the problem of climate change was widely discussed. This is not true of baby boomers and previous generations. But now, each rising cohort of voters grows up in a world in which environmental concerns are important and is likely to retain this perspective. Differences among age cohorts are evident even among Republicans. Multiple surveys reveal a generation gap in the GOP on environmental issues, especially on the subject of climate change. A recent survey of College Republican clubs found widespread recognition that climate change was real and in part a result of human activity, along with openness to solutions. While the public has increasingly divided along party lines about climate change, this is less true of younger cohorts. According to a recent Pew study, 57% of Republican and Republican-leaning Millennials believe that there is “solid evidence” of climate change, While 94% of Millennial Democrats believe this, it’s notable that majorities on both sides share this understanding. By contrast, a majority of GOP baby boomers and members of the pre-boomer “Silent Generation” do not accept that there is solid evidence, putting them at odds with overwhelming majorities of Democrats within their age groups.”

I would take the point further than Karol. It is not simply that younger people have heard about the environment and climate change most of their lives, they have experienced the climate impacts that scientists at one time could only model and predict. Sadly, the climate future projected in the 1990’s is the reality of 2019. Just as their parents and grandparents experienced smog and saw rivers catch fire from pollution, this generation is experiencing the impacts of carbon pollution that at one time could only be projected. They also grew up hearing about the hiking trail their parents once enjoyed that has long been a strip mall. The open road that made their parents view the automobile as a freedom machine, is now clogged with traffic and no longer seems new and exciting, but far less interesting than sitting in the back of an Uber texting your friends and watching the latest viral video on your smart phone.

The images of flooding, fire and smog in one part of the world are instantly transmitted to all parts of the world. The three billion people who lived on the planet when the Baby Boomers came of age has grown to the 7.5 billion people experienced by the Millennials. The beaches are polluted by plastics that are growing exponentially, and the visible destruction of natural systems is impossible to ignore. We live on a more crowded, polluted planet and even though America’s air and water are cleaner today than when EPA was created in 1970, young people have little confidence that the world they are inheriting will be sustainable.

All of which leads to the age gap in environmental politics. The change is not simply in politics, it is reflected in a wide variety of actions taken by young people in the market place and in their choice of lifestyles. I see it first-hand here at Columbia University and I know that colleagues in other universities are experiencing a growing interest in studying and building a profession around environmental sustainability.

The age gap could end up having a significant impact on American national politics. Increased support for environmental protection is happening at the same time that the Trump EPA is trying to deregulate the environment and is packing its advisory boards with climate deniers. While Americans are suspicious of over-regulation, we tend to support rules that protect human health. The environment is not typically an issue that turns elections, but we may see that take place in 2020. I believe that environmental protection is an essential function of government that people have grown to expect. Like police protection it is not seen as a major partisan issue. However, if crime spikes and people feel unsafe, police protection becomes a top ten issue. The same is the case with environmental protection. Because the environment is also protected by state and local governments, federal actions may seem distant and unimportant. But if regulatory failures and human health impacts begin to take place that are traceable to actions in Washington, young people may be mobilized to contribute money and vote to ensure change.

Our politics may be fact challenged, but flood, fire, extreme weather, toxics in your water, and particulates in the air are objective realities that the average person can see, touch, smell and understand.  The data clearly indicates that the generation coming of age today perceives this reality. The political impact of their perceptions will also become an objective and measurable reality.

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