The Climate Change Generation? Report Challenges Assumptions About Younger Americans


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 Forum.

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.


More like this

"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. "


I am 31 years old and deny that man made climate change is real. Al Gore and the UN and every other fascist environut is getting filthy stinking rich off of this con-artist crap called global warming. It is a naural part of the earth's climate cycle. If AL GORE had been alive a the end of the ice age when all the glaciers and ice was melting he would have had a stroke from the shock and awe of it all.

Environuts are ruining everyone's lives telling us what kind of cars to drive, what kind of light bulbs to use, mandating a government crap and trade scheme bill and all manner of socialist style fascist crap that takes away freedom and adds tyranny. The environuts should be treated as terrorists and nothing less. They are more damgerous than Bin Laden ever hoped to be.

By Red State Rebel (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

What a pathetic generation of politically correct pansies these 35's and under are. They bow to what ever the "what's hot and what's not" mainscream media tells them to, bows to a fat American politician promising to lower the seas with taxes and their idea of being radical is sitting in the dark once a year at Earth Hour with the lights turned out, texting their friends and getting h i g h . Nice. They face the future not with bravery. No, like climate cowards who fear the unknown. The kids produced from this generation are going to be REAL liberals who love Nature and are brave.
They hate plastic but donât mind paying $3.00 for the friggin water in the plastic bottle. This explains the perception of consensus because how could there be countless thousands more consensus scientists than protestors? One would think their fantasy corporate scientists they bow to would march along with the protestors. The few of them that DO march.
Meanwhile, the UN has allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education. Nice job!

By Meme Mine (not verified) on 21 Aug 2010 #permalink

I was hoping that the report would say a little bit more about the sample surveyed. How was the survey administered and how was the sample chosen? Are these predominantly college students? etc. etc.

I imagine that a lot of the folks who said they didn't trust what the newspapers had to say about climate change responded that way because most of the newspapers out there are constantly misrepresenting it to the benefit of the vested interests of their owners and owners' ideologies. That particular statistic may reveal some damn good sense.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

Hi Anon,

The analysis is based on a nationally representative sample of American adults with those from the sample under the age of 35 compared to older generations. Some of these respondents are college educated and others are not, in proportion to the population characteristics for this age group.

The survey then further breaks down the nationally representative data looking at differences between those of college age, under 23, and those 23-34, highlighting significant differences across questions on these items.

The sampling procedure for the survey is explained at the end of the report:

These results come from a nationally representative survey of 1,001 American adults, aged 18 and older. The completion rate was 50 percent. The sample was weighted to correspond with US Census Bureau parameters for the United States. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percent, with 95 percent confidence. The survey was designed by Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University and Edward Maibach and Connie Roser-Renouf of George Mason University and conducted December 24, 2009 through January 3, 2010 by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel of American adults.

Hmmm, a mixed bag of results. The result that four out of five trust scientists is probably a good one - if there's an authority figure most likely to be correct, it would be a scientific expert - but that is also open to exploitation, because 'scientist' is a term which can be very loose in the media.

I expect that outreach by scientists still travels through media and journalist middlemen, who are well aware of the authority of scientists - this authority can be called upon, whether the story being told is scientifically justified or not.

It's a shame that the level of concern isn't higher, simply because young people are the demographic with the most to lose. A 60 year old climate pseudoskeptic doesn't stand to lose much if they're wrong, but an 18 year old might.

Interesting that they don't trust News sources....but considering the current state of Media ownership and the bias of the opinion that is reported as facts, I think that it is very astute of them.

By pooka47401 (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

Hi Matthew,

Thank you. I did see that at the end of the report. Perhaps I wasn't particularly clear. How was the survey administered? And how was the nationally representative sample selected? What database did you pull these people from? :)

Look it's not very hard to understand why we (under 35) don't trust the media or the government. Pick up a copy of Manufacturing Consent and you'll understand. That said, I can at least speak for Canada in saying that more people take climate change seriously today than at any other time in history. This is in contrast to our government who has become even more engaged in environmental destruction in the last few years than at any other point in history (Google tar sands). Oh and btw, taking Obama seriously is redundant since he's just the latest face of American Imperialism. His actions at Copenhagen should be more than enough evidence of where he himself stands on this issue and they were entirely predictable. Gore is better but not that much better. I disagree with him on most things, climate change not being one of them.

How much CO2 was produced in making that huge banner?

New policies are being formed around the world to help create a low-carbon economy focused on reducing carbon emissions. The challenge however, is to redefine our production of energy and reduce the demand for power, without hindering business development. The transition will not be easy but is essential if we are to tackle the problem of climate change
Out of necessity comes opportunity and the rational response to climate change is to look towards the low carbon economy of the future

It is very frightening that "evangelicals under 35" is some sort of important demographic. (It is frightening that evangelicals of any sort are an important demographic.)

This simple assertion tells me more about how doomed we are than just about any other. In the 21st Century, religious nuts are still an important force--my, how far we've come since the Bronze Age!!!

Hi Paco,
Your statement is representative of the outlook that contributes to the absence of collective action and consensus building around climate change.


@Matthew: Not necessarily. I had the same thought as him but I recycle, do not drive, limit my consumptions and do activisim for Greenpeace. He is, in my opinion, right to be frightened. Most of the religious fundamentalists do not believe in climate change, climate science or even science. Many of them believe Glenn Beck when he tells them that climate change is a hoax. The fact that they are an important demographic is part of the explanation why so little has yet been done on this critical issue.