Eighty-six percent of young Americans believe the world’s climate is changing and 71 percent 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 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 percent of respondents view climate change as a “crisis,” 83 percent 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 percent 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 percent support pausing fossil fuel leases on public lands, and even more endorse the Civilian Climate Corps.
Perspectives on Climate
Among the 86 percent who say that climate change is real, findings are largely consistent among males (90 percent) and females (83 percent); Whites (86 percent), Blacks (88 percent), Hispanics (87 percent), and other ethnicities; and across geographic regions.
Overall, when asked to characterize climate change, 38 percent call it a crisis, 31 percent say it’s a problem, 12 percent a concern, 9 percent a non-issue, and 8 percent 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.
Twenty-one percent are “very optimistic” about acting in time, while 23 percent are “somewhat optimistic” and 16 percent are “up in the air.” Also, 12 percent are “somewhat pessimistic” and 25 percent are “very pessimistic.”
The SCA Climate Survey exposed measurable frustration among youth who want to do their part in mitigating climate change:
• 35 percent of respondents say “I can make a positive difference, but I’m not sure how”;
• 33 percent state “There’s little I can do, but I wish I could do something”;
• 15 percent indicate “There’s little I can do and I’m fine with that” – almost half (45 percent) of this group do not believe in climate change;
• 14 percent say “I can and I am making a positive difference”.
In terms of lifestyle adaptations, 27 percent of respondents say they have reduced their usage of single-use plastics, 14 percent take alternate transportation, and 12 percent have curtailed electrical use. Another 14 percent have participated in a march or protest, and 10 percent 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 percent. In addition, 89 percent 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.”
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.
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.