Earlier this year, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg inspired youth climate protests in more than 100 cities around the world. Among the Green New Deal’s champions is the Sunrise Movement, which says it is “building an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across America.” It’s clear that young people care about the planet. But can we assume they’ll do what’s necessary to save it? Are they more concerned than older people about declining environmental health, and are they more likely to support policies to do something about it? Press coverage in the U.S. seems to suggest that they are, but academic research sends mixed signals.
New research supported by Erb Institute Faculty Director Joe Árvai suggests that age is not a great predictor of environmental action—instead, values and political views are more likely to drive action.
(“Will Millennials Save the World? The Effect of Age and Generational Differences on Environmental Concern,” by Sara Goto Gray, Kaitlin T. Raimi, Robyn Wilson, and Joseph Árvai, published in the Journal of Environmental Management)
Árvai and his colleagues sought to better understand who is more concerned about environmental losses and more willing to support policy actions aimed at preventing future losses. In addition to age and generational differences, the research team also considered the effects of education, income, political orientation and concern for the environment.
The team surveyed U.S. citizens, gauging their concern about hypothetical environmental losses caused by climate change. “Overall, our research suggests that political orientation and concern for the environment are better predictors of environmental concern and action than are generation and age, which had inconsistent or non-existent effects,” the researchers wrote.
So why is age less important than it seems like it should be? It’s not necessarily that young people care less than they appear to. Even when people care about something, there may be a disconnect between their attitudes and behaviors. This study highlights that disconnect, noting that concern about the environment (as highlighted in the media) does not necessarily translate into action.
But people’s value orientations and political views seem to do that. This study suggests that people who are more liberal and place greater value on the environment care more about environmental losses and are more willing to support action to address them—whether they are Baby Boomers or Millennials.
The researchers wrote, “The factors that shape our behavior often conflict and compete, and they demonstrate that—despite increased concern about the environment amongst younger people—it is not safe to assume that concern will translate into action.”
Rather than hoping Millennials will save us, lead researcher Dr. Sara Goto Gray points to the need for “a sharper focus on other variables that more accurately distinguish who people really are. At a time when diversity in terms of worldview and culture is receiving frontline attention from researchers and practitioners, it may be impractical to continue with the idea that labels based on generational cohort will suffice to differentiate individuals.”
So this research suggests that people trying to garner support for policies that protect the environment should not concentrate only on younger generations. And targeting messaging may be especially important now, as the U.S. gears up for the 2020 elections.