Young Americans Believe Climate Change is Real – and Want to Do More to Stop It

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

SCA Climate Survey Also Reveals Support for Civilian Climate Corps, Environmental Justice Initiatives

(ARLINGTON, VA) April 20, 2021 —- Eighty-six percent of young Americans believe the world’s climate is changing and 71% conclude human activities are the cause, but youth are struggling to identify individual practices they can take to improve global sustainability, according to a new nationwide poll.

Released today by the Student Conservation Association (SCA), The SCA Climate Survey reveals the perspectives of 15-25 year olds on climate change, environmental justice, and related public policy initiatives. The poll shows that although nearly 40% of respondents view climate change as a “crisis,” 83% believe there is still time to prevent its worst effects. Youth are split, however, on whether that goal is achievable.

As for their own actions, a combined 68% say they are “not sure how” to make a positive difference on climate or “I wish I could do something.” SCA CEO and President Stephanie Meeks says such widespread uncertainty stems in part from years of politicized rhetoric and science denial.

“The ramp-up to the 2020 election was marked by division and disinformation,” Meeks asserts. “Sadly, this has eroded truth and fostered a sense of insecurity and helplessness on climate.

“SCA and others in the environmental community must be more active in providing young people with objective information to aid their decision making, and meaningful opportunities to enhance their world and, with it, their futures.”

Among the more than 1,000 young Americans surveyed, vast majorities support federal goals and actions designed to curb climate change. Seventy-seven percent favor the Biden administration’s goal of net-zero emissions within 30 years, nearly 60% support pausing fossil fuel leases on public lands, and even more endorse the Civilian Climate Corps.

Perspectives on Climate

Among the 86% who say that climate change is real, findings are largely consistent among males (90%) and females (83%); Whites (86%), Blacks (88%), Hispanics (87%), and other ethnicities; and across geographic regions. The most noticeable gap is ideological:

  • 93% of self-identified liberals insist the world’s climate is changing
  • 92% of moderates believe our climate is changing
  • 73% of conservatives say the world’s climate is changing

Overall, when asked to characterize climate change, 38% call it a crisis, 31% say it’s a problem, 12% a concern, 9% a non-issue, and 8% label it fiction. Although more than four-in-five young people believe there is still adequate time to act on climate change, perspectives vary on whether we will.

Q: How confident are you that the world will successfully address climate change?

Individual Responses

The SCA Climate Survey exposed measurable frustration among youth who want to do their part in mitigating climate change:

  • 35% of respondents say “I can make a positive difference, but I’m not sure how”
  • 33% state “There’s little I can do, but I wish I could do something”
  • 15% indicate “There’s little I can do and I’m fine with that” – almost half (45%) of this group do not believe in climate change
  • 14% say “I can and I am making a positive difference”

In terms of lifestyle adaptations, 27% of respondents say they have reduced their usage of single-use plastics, 14% take alternate transportation, and 12% have curtailed electrical use. Another 14% have participated in a march or protest, and 10% have volunteered to create change.

However, the single largest act taken by 15-25 year olds is sharing climate information on social media, at 67%. In addition, 89% report they get the majority of their news from social media. SCA’s Meeks sees opportunity in these figures.

“Over the past year-plus of restricted contact with peers and others, online social platforms have only become more central to the lives of young people,” Meeks says. “It is essential that we meet them where they are, and go beyond trends and takes to offer the substantive, impartial climate data youth are seeking.”

Environmental Justice

On environmental justice, young people do not appear to use the partisan lens through which they see climate.

Overall, 67% of respondents report they do not believe U.S. residents are equally protected against exposure to pollution and other ecological hazards. Among liberals, this position is held by 71%, moderates 68%, and conservatives 65%.

“These figures suggest environmental justice has not been politicized to the extent that climate change has,” states SCA Board Chair Dr. Mamie Parker. “It is difficult to definitively state that the past year of racial reckoning is a factor in these findings, but it is clear that young people want to address the unjust and unhealthy conditions faced by certain marginalized populations.”

Of all respondents, 37% characterize environmental justice in the U.S. as extremely inequitable and 33% say it could use improvement – a combined 70% — while labeling several environmental issues as major problems.

Q: Do you consider the following to be major or minor problems?

Public Policy

The SCA Climate Survey also shows significant support for many of President Biden’s environmental actions.

  • 77% approve of the president’s goal of achieving a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050
  • 69% support the White House executive order incorporating environmental justice into the missions of all federal departments
  • 61% endorse the Civilian Climate Corps, designed to employ Americans in addressing climate change, biodiversity, and conservation
  • 58% support Mr. Biden’s executive order directing the Secretary of the Interior to pause new oil and natural gas leases on public lands
  • 57% favor the US decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement

Opinions vary on the Green New Deal. Undecideds lead the way at 45%, while 12% strongly support the measure, 11% somewhat support it, 8% are in the middle, 6% somewhat oppose, and 19% strongly oppose. The numbers move only a point or two among those who believe our climate is changing.

Climate vs. Covid

As the world continues to grapple with a once-in-a-century health emergency, SCA asked young people what will have a greater impact on their lives moving forward: the past year of Covid or the next five years of climate change? Sixty-two percent replied climate change, while 36% cited the pandemic.

At the same time, young people placed measurable urgency on resolving the pandemic and its negative economic impacts.

 

Q: Is addressing climate change more or less important than tackling the following issues?

“The pandemic has hit everyone hard, but these responses reflect the unique view of younger Americans who have endured extended academic chaos and a disproportionate share of Covid-related joblessness,” Meeks says. “Creating jobs and training programs that employ young people in climate mitigation, community resiliency, and resource conservation will pay important dividends now and well into the future.”

The SCA Climate Survey was conducted by the American Research Group of Manchester, NH from March 17 through April 1, 2021. The results are based on 1,067 completed telephone interviews among a nationwide random sample of respondents age 15 to 25. The theoretical margin of error for the total sample size is plus or minus three percentage points on questions where opinion is evenly split. Click here to review a PDF of the survey.

About the Student Conservation Association

The Student Conservation Association (SCA) is America’s oldest and largest youth conservation organization. SCA conserves lands and transforms lives by empowering young people of all backgrounds to plan, act, and lead while they protect and restore our natural and cultural resources. Founded in 1957, SCA’s mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders, and seven in 10 of alumni worldwide are employed or studying in conservation-related fields. For more, visit www.thesca.org.

 

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