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The freshmen speak: a snapshot of Millennials’ views on global warming

As they embark on their college careers, a class of entering freshmen provide a microcosm of evolving attitudes.

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 11.03.03 AMEach year the University of Tennessee, like many institutions around the country, asks its incoming freshmen to read a selected common book before they arrive on campus.

The freshmen write short creative reactions, discuss the book in small groups and hear a talk from the author. This year it was “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet” by Bill McKibben (2010; St. Martin’s Griffin).

For several years, as a former lecturer in the journalism school, I’ve facilitated discussion groups and enjoyed the students’ reactions to books like Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (about Paul Farmer’s inspiring medical work in Haiti), Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (about a Johns Hopkins cancer patient whose cells live on in test tubes and have been used by researchers for decades), and Eric Liu’s “The Accidental Asian” (about ethnic identity in America).

The first half of “Eaarth” is a full-blown description, with plenty of scientific data, of worldwide climate change and its alarming consequences. The second half is made up of ideas on how humanity can change our habits in energy, agriculture and living to lessen the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.

During the summer, UT psychology professor Jeff Larsen emailed the freshmen a link to an online survey of their views on global warming. More than half – 2,250 out of 4,300 – responded. Of those, 76 percent answered yes, climate change is happening; 15 percent said no, it’s not; and 9 percent said they didn’t know.

This reflects even higher levels of belief than we saw among 18- to 24-year-olds in our 2013 Eco Pulse Study – though our question goes beyond simple belief to incorporate human causality. We asked, “How much do you agree with the following statement: Global warming, or climate change, is occurring, and it’s primarily caused by humans?” We found that 65% of Millennials agreed (compared to 58% of Americans overall).

Larsen also explored perceptions of climate change causality with the UT freshmen – comparing their responses in the framework of the Six Americas Study, developed last year by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. A year ago, the Yale Project found that the following percentages of Americans fell into six categories:

1.  16%: Alarmed. Certain that climate change (CC) is occurring, human-caused and harmful now; discuss CC often and support societal action

2.  29%: Concerned. Moderately certain that CC is occurring, human-caused and harmful to future generations; support societal action

3.  25%: Cautious. Believe CC is real and human-caused … but aren’t certain about that; only somewhat worried; view it as a distant threat and don’t have strong opinions on what to do about it

4.  13%: Doubtful. Uncertain about whether CC is occurring, but believe it’s due to natural causes if it is occurring; tend to be politically conservative and hold traditional religious views

5.  8%: Dismissive. Convinced CC is not occurring and oppose action to reduce the threat

6.  9%: Disengaged. Haven’t thought about or developed beliefs about CC and don’t see it as personally relevant

The chart below shows how the incoming freshmen compare with the Yale study of Americans as a whole:

Screen Shot 2013-08-21 at 5.06.40 PMOf the 27 students in my discussion group, 23 submitted creative responses. Surprisingly, none of them doubted that global warming is happening.

Of those, 20 wrote that the book made them more aware of global warming. One, a native of Bangladesh, seconded McKibben’s reports about the effects of rising waters in his homeland. Most of the 20 said they were already taking action to make a difference, or pledged to do so.

Three students, while admitting the reality of climate change, were representative of the 25 percent who are doubtful, dismissive or disengaged.

Their viewpoints were indicative of the two primary barriers to frank discussion about climate change – 1) political/economic and 2) religious.

In the first category, only one student out of the 24 challenged the idea that climate change has been caused by man.

He wrote that McKibben ignored conflicting data and wrote, “Believing our carbon emissions are solely to blame for what can very well be part of a natural weather pattern is almost like believing the moon only appears because you look toward it. The possibility of natural global warming doesn’t sit right with Bill … To him, anyone who says he could be wrong is getting paid off by oil companies … Is it a possibility that there could be someone paying him off to write in this one-sided fashion?”

His viewpoint falls in line with that of many of our Cautious Conservatives. As we have noted in Eco Pulse studies, as firm as Cautious Conservatives might be in resisting most pro-environmental messages, they are receptive to making investments – in energy-saving windows and insulation or even solar panels – that will save them money.

The other two opinions were framed in religious terms.

One wrote that, while agreeing that global warming is happening, he takes solace in his belief in an all-powerful God. “I am not terribly worried about the effect we have on the earth. My reasoning is that God created the earth for us to live on, and that it will last as long as He wants it to … There is nothing that we can do that can outsmart, out-think or out-do God or His plans for His creation.”

Another wrote that he feels that things will all work out: “Because I’ve been raised mostly as a freewill Baptist, most of the preachers I’ve come in contact with have adamantly preached that the end of the world is coming soon … Yes, there are significant changes in the climate compared to the past. However, a large part of the population probably thought the same thing when the ice age ended. The truth is that the earth and all its inhabitants are constantly evolving to each other. I don’t believe that the earth is in a downward spiral. Instead, I believe it is simply adapting. In which case we will have to do the same.”

Although framed in religious terms, these viewpoints are also examples of defensive reactions to litanies of doom and gloom. Faced with an overwhelming problem, people tend to withdraw, throw up their hands, or pass on responsibility to other entities.

This also reminds us that religious beliefs are difficult to sway, and that we do more harm than good with some market segments when we invoke the polar bears and the melting ice caps and – as the student put it – preach apocalyptic sermons.

When we talk about sustainability, we should communicate the benefits of sustainable habits and purchase choices that most resonate with the target audience (in direct marketing) and avoid those that are known to alienate approximately a quarter of the population (in mass marketing). In addition, we must avoid the fear-mongering rhetoric that makes humans tune out insurmountable threats and instead, highlight manageable, practical steps that can be taken. Finally, we must make the green choices comfortable, convenient, affordable and effective. Few will buy the green cleaner if it’s in a special aisle of the store, costs a dollar more and doesn’t get the spots out.

Approaching a tipping point?

Our Eco Pulse study and this UT freshman survey (along with its related essays from my discussion group) all evidence that Millennials are moving toward a consensus that climate change is real, with few leaving open the question of man’s responsibility.

If their parents follow suit (a trend our data supports), we may be approaching a tipping point in national opinion about global warming, perhaps akin to the sudden, surprising tipping point in national consensus on the topic of gay marriage earlier this year. And it may be a hint at other attitudes being shaped by the ever-growing influence of Millennials as they come of age.

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