Teens View Climate Change as Solvable, But See Problems Handed Off to Them by Current Leaders

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

A large majority of U.S. teens view climate change as a problem that society can solve by acting immediately, according to public opinion research released this week by The Nature Conservancy.

In a new national poll conducted by a bi-partisan team of pollsters (Democratic polling firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates and Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies), 76 percent of teens surveyed agree with the statement that “we can solve climate change if we take action now” (including 36 percent who “strongly agree”), while fewer than one-quarter disagree.

But despite optimism that climate change can be solved, a majority of teens also believe they will inherit environmental problems from previous generations that they will have to shoulder the burden to fix:

• 73 percent of polled teens agreed that “previous generations have damaged our environment and left it to our generation to fix it.”

• Only 33 percent of teens think “government leaders are doing a good job addressing major problems facing our country.”

According to pollster David Metz, the research indicates that American youth are concerned about the condition of the environment and lack confidence in adults to address problems.

 “The rising generation of American youth has clear and strong feelings about climate change: they believe environmental issues should be a priority; recognize climate change as a serious problem, and believe acting now can move us toward a solution,” he said. “But they lack faith in political leaders – and in previous generations more generally – to rise to the challenge.”

The online poll of 602 youth aged 13 to 18 (representative of teens nationally by geography, gender, age and race) was conducted between July 28 and August 4, 2011, and funded by The Toyota USA Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and the Foundation for Youth Investment.

The poll gauged teens’ attitudes toward nature, outdoor activity and environmental issues, finding that youth spend much less time outdoors than they do with electronic media.

The Challenge of Connecting Kids to Nature 

Sarene Marshall, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Program, and also a parent of young girls, said she has learned from personal experience the challenges of getting her kids into nature, especially given the increasingly extreme weather we are witnessing, and which we can expect more of with climate change. This year’s heat waves and other abnormal weather have made spending time outside more challenging, and disrupted her family schedules.

In keeping with her recent assertion that climate change is “a parent’s worst nightmare,” Marshall said the poll should give parents, who may already be troubled by the stress teenagers face, additional reason to be concerned – while today’s youth are optimistic that climate solutions can be found, they are worried that this serious problem will remain to be solved when they are adults. 

The poll made these additional findings about teens and climate change:

• American youth express broad concern about global warming with nearly three-quarters (74%) labeling it at least a “somewhat serious” problem – including nearly half who label it “extremely” or “very serious” (45%).

• A sizable minority of American teens are ready to get more personally involved in efforts to fight climate change. More than one-third (36%) express interest in “joining an organization made up of and controlled by teens that was taking action to fight climate change.”

Nature as a Higher Priority

The research also showed a divergence of views between youth and adults on environmental issues.

Recent national polling shows that American adults – by a wide margin – are likely to say that economic growth should take priority over environmental protection; in contrast, youth are more likely to choose environmental protection as the higher priority. When asked which statement about the environment and the economy they most agreed with, 66 percent of the polled teens chose “protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of slowing economic growth,” while 34 percent favored, “Economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.”

Youth also had a different view than adults on the reasons for protecting nature. A majority (56 percent) of teen survey takers said the “best reason to conserve nature is for its own sake – to leave systems of plants and wildlife undisturbed to evolve, change and grow,” while a smaller group (44 percent) said, “The best reason to conserve nature is to preserve the benefits people can derive from it – for our economy, our health, and our enjoyment.” A 2010 survey found that 42 percent of American adults agreed with the first statement, while 45 percent favored the second statement.

Even though many teens are not regularly spending time in nature, the data show that they value the experience.  The most popular words chosen by the surveyed teens “to describe how you feel when you are outdoors in a natural area,” paint a positive picture of the emotional benefits of being in nature, and of teens’ appreciation of it.

Topping the list of descriptions chosen most by respondents included “peaceful” (71 percent) and “free” (70 percent), followed by “calm” (65 percent), “happy” (65 percent) and “adventurous” (65 percent). Large majorities of teens also said they feel “alive” (55 percent) and “curious” (53 percent) when in a natural area.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and feature writer for The Nature Conservancy

Photo: © Erika Nortemann, The Nature Conservancy (Participants in LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future) join staff at The Nature Conservancy’s Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge to count and record the location of piping plovers.)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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