Growing Climate Skepticism Among Generation X

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It may be one of the biggest issues of our lifetimes, but the vast majority of the working-age adults who make up Generation X remain unconcerned, new research indicates. Fewer than one in five Americans between the ages of 32 and 52 say they are concerned or alarmed about climate change, political scientists at the University of Michigan found in a study released last week. Fully two thirds of those surveyed expressed doubts that climate change was real.

“Most Generation Xers are surprisingly disengaged, dismissive or doubtful about whether global climate change is happening and they don’t spend much time worrying about it,” said Jon D. Miller, author of The Generation X Report.

Over 40% of those surveyed fell into a category the authors labeled “disengaged.” These Gen X’ers are not sure that global warming is happening, have given the matter little thought, and expect impacts to be far in the future, the report says. Only 5% were categorized as “alarmed” about climate change, while 4% were “dismissive,” or convinced that global warming is not happening.

Members of Generation X also seem to be paying less attention to climate change than they were two years previously. Only 2% of roughly 3,000 respondents said that they were following climate change issues very closely in 2011, half as many as prior research indicated.

“We found a small but statistically significant decline between 2009 and 2011 in the level of attention and concern Generation X adults expressed about climate change,” says Miller. “In 2009, about 22% said they followed the issue of climate change very or moderately closely. In 2011, only 16% said they did so.”

To a large degree, Generation X seems confused about whether climate change is real, what role human activity plays, and whether using less fossil fuel will help. When asked to agree or disagree with statements like “There is not enough scientific evidence to support claims that the Earth is getting warmer,” roughly 50% of respondents said they were unsure or did not lean strongly either way.

Adults who have had more formal education were more likely to worry about climate change, the report found. The pattern came into stark relief among those who were most scientifically literate. Those who scored 90 or above on a 100-point Index of Civic Scientific Literacy were significantly more likely to be alarmed or concerned than less knowledgeable adults, the researchers said. But the lines were not entirely clear cut. Twelve percent of that same group were either dismissive or doubtful about climate change.

The researchers found a strikingly sharp divide over global warming between the political right and the left. Nearly half of liberal Democrats were alarmed or concerned, compared with 0% of conservative Republicans. Among those who consider themselves non-partisan, the differences were similarly sharp. Among over 220 conservative non-partisans, zero expressed alarm over climate change, while none of the 160 liberal non-partisans were dismissive of climate change.

The level of indifference among some groups surprised the researchers. Miller said he expected that the parents of minor children would be more concerned about the issue than young adults without minor children, given the greater anticipated impact of climate change on future generations. “Not so,” he says. “Generation X adults without minor children were slightly more alarmed about climate change than were parents. The difference is small, but it is in the opposite direction than we expected.”

The report pointed to several possible explanations. Adults may be paying more attention to other problems, like the economic downturn. And when problems persist for years, a certain level of “issue fatigue” may set in, the report says. Many do not see climate change as a problem that requires their immediate attention.

Since the study was conducted in 2011, it is possible that attitudes have shifted. This year has brought an unusually warm winter and spring, followed by record-shattering heat waves, a widespread drought and wildfires across Colorado, which researchers say is likely the result of climate change.

Even dyed-in-the-wool skeptics within the broader scientific community are increasingly convinced. One of the most prominent challengers, Professor Richard A. Muller recently declared himself a “converted skeptic” on global warming. Mr. Muller, and his Generation X daughter, Elizabeth, co-founded the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project and spent three years closely reviewing potential problems with climate change studies.

“Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct,” Mr. Muller wrote in a July 28 New York Times editorial. “I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”