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Millennials and Gen Z Sound the Alarm on Climate Change

Running Numbers by Emily Sullivan
Climate activists Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Lakshmi Thevasagayam, and Florian Oezcan protest against the expansion of the Garzweiler open-cast lignite mine

While younger Americans are most concerned about climate change, pluralities of each generation are ready to take action to prevent it.

Earlier this week, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was detained by police for protesting the expansion of a German coal mine. As pictures of the protests flooded the news and social media, one thing that immediately stood out was the age of those participating. Thunberg herself is 20 years old, and many of her fellow protesters also looked like they could have come straight from a university campus. This is just the latest and most prominent example of young people taking the lead on sounding the alarm on climate change, an issue that surveys show is more important to them than it is to older generations.  

Data from the 2022 Chicago Council Survey reveal that, when it comes to the most prominent security threats facing the United States, Millennials and members of Gen Z are less likely than their parents or grandparents to classify topics like Russia or China’s territorial ambitions, international terrorism, or North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs as critical threats to the United States. Climate change is the exception to this pattern.

Climate change is one of only two threats that are more concerning to younger Americans than older ones.1 Six in 10 each of Millennials and Gen Z see climate change as a critical threat to US interests (59%), compared to just about half each of Gen X (52%), Boomers (51%), and the Silent Generation (49%). This gap may not seem large at first, but since younger generations are relatively less concerned about threats to US interests across the board on this question, it’s important to look at where they place climate change relative to other concerns. Climate change is viewed as the second-most concerning threat by Millennials (behind a disruption in energy supply) and Gen Z (behind a global economic downturn). For Gen X, Boomers, and the Silent Generation, climate change doesn’t even make it into the top half of their list of concerns out of the 11 items included on the survey.

Chalk It up to Classic Partisan Divisions?

Differing partisan breakdowns within the generations may help explain some of the elevated concern about climate change among younger Americans. In general, Democrats (81%) and Independents (54%) are much more likely than Republicans (20%) to identify climate change as a critical threat. Only one-fifth of Millennials (21%) and Gen Z (22%) identify as Republicans, compared to 27 percent of Gen X, 32 percent of Boomers, and 38 percent of the Silent Generation. Compared to the overall American population, Millennials are slightly more likely to be Democrats or Independents. The proportion of Democrats within Gen Z is comparable to other generations and the overall public, but this youngest age cohort is much more likely to identify as Independent. Millennial and Gen Z Independents also skew more ideologically liberal than Independents of older generations. 

While increased Democratic identification and liberal ideological leanings among Millennials and Gen Z may help explain some of their elevated concern about climate change, even Republican Millennials are somewhat more likely to classify climate change as a critical threat (26%) than older Republicans (22% Gen X, 16% Boomers).2 This indicates that generation itself, regardless of partisan affiliation, does play a role in influencing concern about climate change.

Addressing the Climate Crisis Likely to Remain a Multigenerational Effort

With the oldest Millennials only in their early 40s, most of the top decision-making positions in American business and government are still held by members of Gen X or Baby Boomers. This means that climate-concerned younger generations will need the buy-in of their elders if they want to enact the policies and practices scientists say are necessary to avoid a disastrous climate crisis. Luckily for them, while older generations express less concern about climate change as a threat, they are just as likely as younger generations to support meaningful climate action. About half of each generation believes that climate change is a serious and pressing problem, and that steps should be taken now to address it even if it involves significant costs. About a third in each group believes that the effects of climate change will be gradual and that the response to it can therefore also be gradual and lower in cost.

Americans across generations are also generally aligned when it comes to the role the United States should play in international efforts to combat climate change. A majority of Gen Z (56%), half of Millennials (50%), and pluralities of Gen X (47%), Boomers (45%) and the Silent Generation (45%) believe that the United States should play a leading role in finding global solutions for climate change. While support for leading is slightly higher among younger generations, all are still aligned on their preferred course of action. An additional three or four in 10 of each generation would prefer the United States play a supporting role, with no more than two in 10 in any group saying the United States should play no role at all in these efforts.

One step that Millennials and Gen Z might be more willing to take than older Americans when it comes to addressing climate change is working with otherwise unfriendly partners to get the job done. Six in 10 Millennials (62%) and two-thirds of Gen Z (66%) support undertaking joint efforts with Russia to combat climate change. Boomers and Gen X, on the other hand, are much more internally divided on this question with 54 percent and 53 percent, respectively, supporting this type of collaboration. In this case, the Silent Generation actually looks more like young Americans, with 61 percent expressing support for joint efforts with Russia in this area.

Policy conversations about climate change are frequently framed around the idea of saving future generations, and it is young faces that are often most visible within the activist movement. But these Council data suggest that while young people may feel the threat of climate change most viscerally, they will likely find lots of common ground with their elders when it comes to finding solutions to slow the warming of the planet.

  • 1 The other is a global economic downturn, which is seen as a critical threat by 60 percent of Gen Z, 58 percent of Millennials, 57 percent of Gen X, 50 percent of Baby Boomers, and 44 percent of the Silent Generation.
  • 2 There were not enough Republicans in Gen Z (n=46) and the Silent Generation (n=68) included in this sample to definitively report on their views as a standalone group.
About the Author
Emily Sullivan
Former Research Assistant, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
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Emily Sullivan joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 and was a research assistant on the Public Opinion team.
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