Millennials Are Tackling Climate Change — So Why Haven't Boomers Noticed?


Can millennials lead the fight on climate change, or are young environmentalists just full of hot air?

That’s the question on the minds of many as a new report issued by the UN International Panel on Climate Change says that technological advancements in the energy sector are moving too slowly to limit global warming and that we will likely blow past the benchmarks scientists say we must meet to avoid serious climate change.  

Once seen as our last best hope to turn the tide on climate change, the rising millennial generation has received flack in recent months for being all talk and no walk when it comes to tangible environmentalism activism. But, while the image of millennials as so-called “slacktivists” fits with the prevalent narrative of millennials as lazy, selfish, and disengaged, it may not necessarily be an accurate reflection of the work millennials are doing on the ground.

Research is divided on the issue. While studies shows that 71% of millennials agree that the country should “do whatever it takes to protect the environment” and 51% say that “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost,” research has also shown that millennials are the least likely to become personally involved in programs to clean up the environment. In fact, they were three times as likely as Baby Boomers to say they had made no personal effort to help the environment, a stat that was jumped on by media outlets like The Atlantic, who gleefully declared, “Millennials are, like, meh about the environment and stuff.”

In an effort to defend their environmental street cred, many millennials activists have criticized the methodology behind studies that show a lack of individual investment, pointing out that the study cited above was based solely on high-school seniors and incoming college freshmen — hardly a representative sample of the millennial generation as a whole.

More broadly, however, as the Roosevelt Institute has argued, older generations are often incapable of recognizing environmental activism that doesn’t look like it did in the 1970s, meaning millennials aren’t given credit even for the initiatives they do take.

Instead of primarily addressing climate change as it relates to clean water and air, millennials understand climate change as an integral part of all other policy problems. According to David Weinberger, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Roosevelt Institute, “We are concerned with economic growth, job creation, enhancing public health, bolstering educational achievement, and national security and diplomacy. Young people recognize that each of these concerns is inextricably tied to the environment and see environmental health and protection as a means to arriving at any of these outcomes.”

While activists like Anjali Appadurai are certainly still engaging the traditional political sphere in a powerful way, other millennial environmentalists are understandably disillusioned with the political system. Instead, they are more interested in addressing climate change through local entrepreneurial ventures and economic incentives to make small, but important differences in the areas they can reach directly. As John Wihbey writes, for millennials, “climate activism goes beyond just targeting United Nations or Washington policymakers with demands about emissions goals or regulatory structures.” Instead, millennials are increasingly looking for new energy sources while finding ways to reduce energy demand without forcing families to take a financial hit.

UNC student Erin Hiatt, for example, has proposed a “Cash for Clunkers” spin-off program for families to unload old, inefficient household supplies in return for financial rewards. Sachie Hopkins Hayakawa, a senior at Swarthmore College, has led the divestment effort at her school to encourage the university to retract its investments in fossil fuels. Harvard students Jessica Matthews and Julia Silverman invented the “soccket ball,” a soccer ball that produces clean energy as it spins and can power a light bulb for three hours after 30 minutes of play (a particularly fitting solution for the developing world, where families can spend between 10 and 30% of their annual income on dirty kerosene lamps). James Underberg of Cornell University has proposed a new paradigm for government contracts that would take the environmental costs of bids into account as a more holistic approach to sustainable development.

These types of projects, according to Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, are emblematic of a different approach to addressing environmental issues, saying, “Members of the generation disagree sharply with their elders on the best way to address environmental challenges, preferring to tackle them through individual initiative and grassroots action rather than a heavy-handed top down bureaucratic approach.”

That grassroots approach isn’t exactly what attracts hordes of traditional media attention, however, meaning millennial activism is often dismissed “as the product of youthful idealism and high spirits — a 'phase' that college students since the 1960s have traversed before collecting their diplomas and moving on.” Instead of covering their work, the media discounts millennial environmentalism as an adorable reminder of a time when they too once cared about the environment. 

So, are millennials driving the technological innovation we need to finally address climate change or are we slacking our way through another global crisis? Studies say the jury’s still out. 

The one thing we know, however, is that according to the IPCC, we need a new approach now more than ever. Before Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers take another cheap shot at millennials for being lazy, selfie-taking narcissists, they should make an effort to acknowledge and encourage the work that is being done, even if it looks different from what they’re used to. And perhaps while they’re at it, take a step back and remember which generations got us into this mess in the first place.