On Young People And Climate Change Skepticism

  • Date: 22/10/10

The New York Times has a front-page story this morning on climate change skepticism and denial within the Tea Party movement.

According to the story:

Skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement, here in Indiana and across the country. For some, it is a matter of religious conviction; for others, it is driven by distrust of those they call the elites. And for others still, efforts to address climate change are seen as a conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth. But all are wary of the Obama administration’s plans to regulate carbon dioxide, a ubiquitous gas, which will require the expansion of government authority into nearly every corner of the economy.

As I’ve noted here before, climate denial is pervasive in today’s Republican Party. Case in point: All but one of the 20 Republican Senate candidates in tight races have raised questions about the science behind climate change.

But how sustainable is this kind of position? The majority of Tea Partiers are over 45, with just 7 percent between the ages of 18 and 29, according to an April New York Times poll. At the same time, polling data show that the majority of young people favor putting limits on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve scoured the Internet for organizations of young climate skeptics and I haven’t found any. That’s not to say that young climate skeptics don’t exist, but it appears that there’s no organized structure for them.

In 10, 20 or 30 years, as young people take on leadership roles, will the Republican Party’s positions on climate change … change? I’d be interested in hearing some thoughts in the comments section. Let me know if there’s anything I should be reading on the subject or if there are any young climate change skeptics I should talk to.

The Washington Independent, 21 October 2010


On Young People And Climate Change Skepticism

I reached out to prominent climate skeptic Warren Meyer, who runs the website climate-skeptic.com, for his views on whether future generations will raise questions about climate science in the same way that many Republicans do today. I wrote about the issue earlier today.

Meyer, in an email, said that younger generations are drawn to “the ‘civilization in peril’ line,” and he suggested that people’s views change over time. “[T]he lack of teenage skeptics today is meaningless for whether there will be skeptics in 20 years,” he said.

Here’s his full response:

Young people approach issues in different ways and have different interests, and that has not changed. For example, young people of every generation are suckers for the “civilization in peril” line– they like to think that they as young people are uniquely position to save the world from a once-in a millenia threat. It’s only the threat that changes. In the 50′s it was communism. In the sixties it was the Vietnam war.  In the seventies it was hunger and over-population. You get the idea. I read a really interesting treatment of this topic, how the young want to feel they can change the world, that they don’t have to expend decades of work to build up their skills and credibility — that they can be instantly powerful at age 22. There is nothing compelling among young people in the “do nothing” case on any issue, and the rewards systems (school grades, college admissions) is skewed against those who are not openly advocating to change something. So folks who are young who might be skeptics expend their energy on other issues where they can advocate for change rather than the status quo. It doesn’t mean there are no young skeptics, just that these folks may expend their activism in other areas.

The other thing is that younger people are notorious for dismissing or grossly underestimating complexity and costs. We see this in the climate change notion of the precautionary principle, that supposedly if there is even a tiny change of catastrophe, we should act. This seems really compelling to the young. Until you understand that on the other side of the equation is a 100% chance of really high economic costs, including punishing effects on the poor of developing nations who are just emerging from millennia of poverty and need to burn every hydrocarbon they can find to do so.

None of this is unique to our times. Skeptics today in their forties are not skeptics because they were in their teens. So the lack of teenage skeptics today is meaningless for whether there will be skeptics in 20 years.

To Meyer’s point, polls suggest that older people care much more about the cost of policies like cap-and-trade than younger people. A June National Journal/Society for Human Resources Management poll shows that while 65 percent of 18-29 year-olds favor “protecting the environment” — to 29 percent concerned with “keeping prices low” — those numbers change for older people: 40 percent of people over 65 care about protecting the environment, while 47 percent are concerned with keeping prices low.

Given this information, the big question is this: As people get older, does skepticism become more appealing?

The Washington Independent, 21 October 2010

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