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Generational Gaps Close on Sense of Threat from Climate Change

Running Numbers by Katherine Stiplosek
Crowd kneels at a climate protest.

Concern for the state of the planet spans generations, 2021 Chicago Council Survey data show.

One of the most prominent threats facing the United States today is climate change. It's a highly publicized topic, especially among Millennials and Generation Z. Some observers may interpret young adults’ emphasis on limiting climate change as an issue that concerns only younger generations, but this notion is misguided.

Threat of Climate Change

When broken down by generation, data from an August 23-26 Chicago Council-Ipsos Survey reveal that climate change is perceived as a critical threat at nearly the same rate across generations: Gen Z (57%), Millennials (56%), Gen X (50%), Boomers (53%), and the Silent Generation (48%). The fact that there is only about a 10-point difference between the oldest and youngest Americans when it comes to assessing the threat posed by climate change may be surprising to many who associate climate change activism with young people. The portion of those who remain unconcerned about climate change remains relatively constant across generations as well, with just under one in five in each group saying that climate change is “not an important threat” to the vital interests of the United States (15% Gen Z, 17% Millennials, 19% Gen X, 18% Boomers, 18% Silent Generation).

Demand for Change

Not only do all generations converge on the threat climate change poses, they agree that the US government has been largely unsuccessful at combatting the threat. The 2020 Chicago Council Survey found that Gen Z (34%), Millennials (26%), Gen X (29%), Boomers (30%), and the Silent Generation (28%) similarly believe that the US government is “not very effective” at dealing with climate change. All generations ranked efforts “not effective at all” at nearly the same rate: Gen Z (34%), Millennials (36%), Gen X (31%), Boomers (27%), and the Silent Generation (29%).

Results for the Chicago Council’s 2019 Survey revealed that all generations share nearly the same views on how best to approach climate change. Gen Z (54%), Millennials (56%), Gen X (49%), Boomers (49%), and the Silent Generation (43%) reported that climate change is a serious and pressing problem, and “we should begin taking steps now even if this involvement is costly.” These corresponding views fall within 12 percentage points of one another, demonstrating that all generations perceive climate change as a serious issue that warrants immediate action.

What Should We Do About It?

New data from the 2021 Chicago Council Survey revealed that all generations are interested in participating in international agreements that will improve environmental conditions and help combat climate change. Around two thirds of Boomers (64%), Gen X (63%), Millennials (66%), and Gen Z (61%) believe the United States should participate in the Paris Climate Agreement. Levels of support remain similar to what they were in 2014, when respondents were asked about the ideas behind the Paris Agreement without the name attached. At that time, 71 percent of Millennials, 70 percent of Gen X, and 71 percent of Boomers supported “a new international treaty to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Although it is difficult to provide any singular explanation for these parallels, generational perception of climate change is largely similar. Across generational divides, individuals recognize climate change as a critical threat that warrants urgent involvement and is not being handled effectively by the US government. This collective perception holds positive implications for future activist and public policy efforts to address and combat this growing threat.

Partisanship: The True Delineator

If age doesn’t play a particularly significant role in shaping someone’s views on climate change than what does? Partisan affiliation appears to be the dominant factor. Results from the 2021 Chicago Council Survey reveal that Democrats are substantially more supportive than Republicans of US involvement in limiting climate change, regardless of generational divides. Eight in 10 Democrats believe the US should play a leading role in combatting climate change (81%), but only three in 10 Republicans (31%) agree. In each party, these views are relatively consistent across generations.