The Climate Change Generation? Report Challenges Assumptions About Younger Americans

Framing Science blog logo The recent report, "The Climate Change Generation?" was a collaboration of researchers from American, Yale and George Mason Universities. It makes the point that despite other reports to the contrary, Americans under 35 are less engaged in climate issues than other demographics. While less preoccupied with climate change, they youth are more likely to believe that it is a result of human actions.

Posted March 12, 2010
By Matthew C. Nisbet, Framing Science

Americans under the age of 35 have grown up during an era of
ever more certain climate science, increasing news attention, alarming
entertainment portrayals, and growing environmental activism, yet on a
number of key indicators, this demographic group remains less engaged
on the issue than older Americans.

A survey report released today challenges conventional wisdom that
younger Americans as a group are more concerned and active on the issue
of climate change than their older counterparts. The analysis of
nationally representative data collected in January of this year is
timed for release with last night's American University Forum event on
the "Climate Change Generation: Youth, Media, and Politics in an Unsustainable World."

—>Among the key findings, only 33% under the age of 35 trust
the news media as a source of information on climate change, a
proportion lower than any other age group. This proportion is also only
slightly higher than the 27% of those under 35 who trust Sarah Palin as
a source of information. This finding suggests that news organizations
and journalists need to take initiatives to increase their credibility
and to build stronger relationships with younger audiences.

—>Yet importantly, for those under 35, 82% of respondents trust
scientists, 61% trust President Obama, and 54% trust Al Gore,
proportions higher than any other age group. The implication is that
direct engagement efforts on the part of scientists and the White
House, outside of traditional news coverage, are likely to influence
perceptions among this group.

—>Moreover, among Evangelicals under 35, for this politically
important group, religious leaders are the most trusted source for info
on climate change (81%) but nearly just as many young Evangelicals also
trust scientists (77%) and a majority trust Obama (52%). If scientists
and the White House were to work closely with Evangelical leaders on
climate change, it would likely reap benefits relative to this sizable
segment of Americans.

These are just a few of the important findings. Readers should check out the PDF of the full report and
survey analysis. An executive summary is below. I will be posting about
different elements of the report throughout the week so check back for
more. The report is a joint collaboration between researchers at AU,
Yale University, and George Mason University.

For further information contact:
Lauren Feldman, PhD
American University, School of Communication
feldman AT american DOT edu

The Climate Change Generation?
Survey Analysis of the Perceptions and Beliefs of Young Americans

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, new nationally representative survey data analyzed by American University researchers and collected by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication
reveal that 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, collected between December 24, 2009 and
January 3, 2010, 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, particularly relative to shifting the
perceptions of those who currently hold moderately skeptical or
uncertain views.


Report and analysis by Lauren Feldman, PhD (American University,
School of Communication) with Matthew C. Nisbet, PhD (American
University, School of Communication), Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD (Yale
University, Project on Climate Change) and Edward Maibach, MPH, PhD
(George Mason University, Center for Climate Change Communication )

About the authors

Lauren Feldman, Ph.D.
is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at American
University, Washington, D.C. Her research interests include political
socialization, youth civic engagement, and the impact of entertainment
and non-traditional news sources on political knowledge, attitudes, and
participation. Her research has been supported by a grant from the
Carnegie-Knight Task Force on Journalism and published in a number of
edited volumes and peer-reviewed journals, including Communication
Research, Political Communication, and Journalism: Theory, Practice,
and Criticism. She earned her doctoral degree from the University of
Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D.
is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at American
University, Washington, D.C. As a social scientist, he studies
strategic communication in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on
controversies surrounding science, the environment, and public health.
The author of more than 30 journal articles and book chapters, his
research on climate change communication is funded by the Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation where he is a Health Policy Investigator. Nisbet
serves on the editorial boards of the International Journal of
Press/Politics and Science Communication. He also blogs about the
intersections between science, the media, and politics at Framing
Science (

Anthony Leiserowitz,
Ph.D. is Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change at the Yale
School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He is an expert on
American and international public opinion on global warming, including
public perception of climate change risks, support and opposition for
climate policies, and willingness to make individual behavioral change.
His research investigates the psychological, cultural, political, and
geographic factors that drive public environmental perception and
behavior. He has served as a consultant to the John F. Kennedy School
of Government (Harvard University), the United Nations Development
Program, the Gallup World Poll, the Global Roundtable on Climate Change
at the Earth Institute (Columbia University), and the World Economic

Edward Maibach, M.P.H., Ph.D.,
is a professor of communication and director of the Center for Climate
Change Communication at George Mason University. With over 25 years of
experience as a researcher and practitioner of public health
communication and social marketing, Ed now focuses exclusively on how
to mobilize populations to adopt behaviors and support public policies
that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help communities adapt to the
unavoidable consequences of climate change. Ed previously had the
pleasure to serve as Associate Director of the National Cancer
Institute, as Worldwide Director of Social Marketing at Porter Novelli,
as Chairman of the Board for Kidsave International, and in academic
positions at George Washington University and Emory University. He
earned his doctoral degree at Stanford University and his MPH at San
Diego State University.

No Responses to “The Climate Change Generation? Report Challenges Assumptions About Younger Americans”

  1. Take a look at the most recent Gallup polling on global warming by age group and you’ll get a somewhat different story. The young may be divided, we all are, but they are still greener than almost all the rest of us, and the only group moving the right direction.
    This survey is interesting and helpful, but drawing conclusions from the data in isolation can be a bit deceptive.

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