When it comes to the climate change debate, there are two definitive sides: those who believe in the overwhelming science and those who stand to gain by continuing to deny the evidence. Within these camps, the partisan demographics do not follow the strict red and blue lines that our country is so taken with. Although they are by no means majorities, there are factions of the Democratic Party that support increased coal production and there are subsets of the GOP that champion domestic wind power. However, contrary to common belief, the greatest dividing force in the climate change debate is not partisan, but generational.
Increasingly, as grassroots movements for climate justice grow, the racial, religious, socioeconomic, and generational makeup of these groups are changing as well. Climate change is not just a college student or old hippies' issue now: it is quickly becoming the defining issue of the century. The People's Climate March that flooded Manhattan with 400,000 activists last September was comprised of a mix of many different groups. Yes, there were the militant environmentalists, but there were also suburban moms who traded in their minivans for hybrids, church groups from Harlem, farmers from the Hudson Valley, and forestry students that will soon become the professional faces of the effort to save the earth.
The issue has been gaining steam recently. The New York Times recently cited a Pew Research Center poll that estimated only 67 percent of the population believe that climate change is real. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans that believe in climate change has fallen in recent years. In 2006, Pew found that 77 percent of Americans believed in climate change, but this number fell to 57 percent by 2009. When the U.S. was compared to 20 other countries in Ipsos MORI's Global Trends 2014 Survey, it ranked last, with only 54 percent, behind China (93 percent), France (80 percent), Brazil (79 percent), Germany (72 percent) and fifteen other polled countries. Compared to other nations, the U.S. lags far behind in climate awareness.
But, it's equally important to understand not just how many Americans believe in climate change, but also which Americans believe. How do attitudes on climate change differ from generation to generation? Where do millennials stand as opposed to Gen Xers and the Baby Boomers? What do these generational differences tell us about the future of climate change policy?
Because climate change is such a long-term problem, and because millennials are tomorrow's policy makers, our generation must know the importance of stopping it. The United Nations and Stockholm Environmental Institute predict that by 2050, 25 percent of the global population will be over 55 years old. This influx of grown-up millennials will effect the kinds of policies that could be implemented. Coincidentally, 2050 is the year that most climate scientist say we should have cut our carbon emissions by 50 percent to 80 percent.
Fortunately, millennials understand the severity of the climate change issue better than other generations. A study by Statista in March 2014, looked at the different attitudes on climate change between four generations. The survey split participants up into millennials (18-36), GenX (37-48), Baby Boomers (49-67) and Matures (68+). When asked if they believed that climate change was real and that humans were to blame for most of it, 50 percent of millennials answered yes, whereas only 37 percent of Matures agreed. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were more neutral, answering 43 percent and 47 percent respectfully.
These numbers do not come as a shock. Historically, younger generations have always been more active about the environment and social movements. Younger generations like millennials today consistently champion the issues that will effect them in the years to come, just like their parents did on civil rights and gender equality. Today, that means young people are more likely to be active in climate politics.
Maybe the most surprising attitude this report found was that of the Gen Xers. The Gen Xers do not seem to be overly worried about climate change, they seem to be waiting for the millennials to take the lead. Many believe in a changing climate, but they also had the highest percentage of poll participants registering as "unsure."
These statistics are directly related to how decisions on climate change are made in Congress because many politicians tend to be older and more conservative on this issue. But, there are other culprits, the Koch brothers, the oil companies, and the lobbyists that spend every waking moment demonizing environmentalist and protecting factory farming and unsustainable industries.
Will substantial climate action have to wait until millennials control Congress? Will they push for a more sustainable future when they do?
Only time will tell if millennials will change the ways governments look at climate change. If the present is any reflection of the future, then yes, they will bring change. But if the American people know one thing it is that those we elect to represent us so often fall into other ways of thinking that put corporations before constituents. As the old saying goes, power corrupts.
Unless the grassroots campaigns gather a vast new following, policy changes related to climate change will most likely have to wait until one of the Koch brothers' beach houses is ruined by a superstorm.
Grayson Sussman Squires, Age 16, is on assignment in Buenos Aires.