Matthew Ballew, Jennifer Marlon, John Kotcher, Edward Maibach, Seth Rosenthal, Parrish Bergquist, Abel Gustafson, Matthew Goldberg, Anthony Leiserowitz
Young climate activists have become a powerful voice for climate action around the world. Most notably, Greta Thunberg, a teenage climate activist from Sweden who was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019, helped spur a global school strike movement to demand systematic change. Many others are organizing – creating or joining groups like Sunrise Movement, SustainUS, and Youth.gov – to amplify their voices, build political power for climate action, and fight for environmental justice.
In 2019, we found that Millennials were more likely to say that global warming was personally important to them and more willing to engage in political action than were older Americans. In our latest national survey, we asked how Americans view climate activism and what activism behaviors they are already taking or would consider taking. Here, we further examine these views, intentions, and actions across generational groups: Millennial or younger adults (aged 18-38), Generation X (aged 39-54), and Baby Boomer or older (aged 55+).
Compared to older generations, Millennial or younger adults are more likely to support and/or identify with climate activists who urge elected officials to take action to reduce global warming. Consistent with our research, younger generations are also more willing to volunteer or donate to an organization working on global warming, as well as engage in other forms of climate activism. For example, younger generations express greater willingness to personally engage in, or support an organization engaging in, non-violent civil disobedience (e.g., sit-ins, blockades) against corporate or government activities that make global warming worse. The greatest differences between younger and older generations are found for voting and public activism (e.g., willingness to join a climate campaign, or attend a political rally, speech, or protest about global warming). About six in ten (59%) Millennial or younger adults say they would vote for a candidate because of their position on global warming, compared to half or fewer Gen X (48%) and Baby Boomer or older (46%) adults.
Younger generations of Americans also have a stronger sense of collective efficacy regarding global warming than do older generations – they are more confident that citizens working together can influence the actions of government and business decision-makers.
Generational patterns are evident among both Republicans and Democrats, but some differences are more pronounced among Republicans. Younger generations of Republicans are more likely than older Republicans to support and/or identify with climate activists, and to say they are willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming.
Younger Republicans are also more willing than older Republicans to take several other climate actions including sharing information about global warming on social media, attending a political rally, speech, or organized protest about global warming, and personally engaging or supporting an organization engaging in non-violent civil disobedience against corporate or government activities that make global warming worse. Across party lines, younger generations also have a higher sense of collective efficacy about global warming than do older generations.
Research suggests that generational divides in some climate change beliefs among Republicans might be “opening up” or widening over time. According to an analysis of the Democracy Fund’s Views of the Electorate Survey, since 2011, younger Republicans have grown more accepting that climate change is human-caused, but there has been little to no change among older Republicans. This increasing gap between younger and older Republicans was not evident among Democrats. Although it is unclear if there are similar generational trends in climate activism among Republicans, future work should examine how the climate movement is growing among younger generations, particularly the political Right.
Understanding the motivations, intentions, and actions of younger generations – and why there are generational differences – is important for informing how organizations might focus their efforts to activate younger populations, including youth. The results here suggest that Millennials and younger adults may be more motivated than older generations of Americans to take collective action on global warming and engage in online activism. Younger generations across the political spectrum also consistently report higher levels of collective efficacy regarding climate actions. Perceptions of collective efficacy are an important motivator for individuals to take collective action. The more youth see other like-minded citizens in their age group taking action on climate, raising their voices, and voting, the more they are likely to feel inspired and empowered to do so as well.
These data were produced from the Climate Change in the American Mind November 2019 survey (N = 1,303 U.S. adults) – a nationally-representative survey of public opinion on climate change in the United States conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Surveys were administered November 8 – 20, 2019 using the Ipsos KnowledgePanel® (formerly GfK), a representative online panel of U.S. adults (18+). All questionnaires were self-administered by respondents in a web-based environment.
Generational cohort and year of birth were computed based on respondents’ age at the time of data collection (Millennial or younger: 1981 or later, aged 18-38; Generation X: 1965 – 1980, aged 39-54; Baby Boomer or older: 1964 or earlier, aged 55+). Given that generation is estimated, some respondents may be miscategorized. References to Republicans and Democrats throughout include respondents who initially identify as either a Republican or Democrat, as well as those who do not initially identify as Republicans or Democrats but who say they “are closer to” one party or the other (i.e., “leaners”) in a follow-up question.
Percentage values are weighted to align with U.S. Census parameters. For tabulation purposes, percentage points are rounded to the nearest whole number. The average margin of error for Generation X and Millennial or younger subgroups is +/- 5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, and +/- 4 percentage points for Baby Boomer or older adults.
For more information on the survey methods, please review the Climate Activism: Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors November 2019 report.