Why Do Gen Xers Care So Little About Climate Change?

Generation X may not be the stereotypical slackers of those '90s cult classic movies, but here's one issue they have trouble caring about: climate change.


The generation that was once poked fun at in pop culture for being underachieving slackers has grown into an educated, wired and scientifically literate generation. But record-breaking heat waves, epic droughts and killer tornadoes haven't sounded the climate change alarm for these adults, aged 32 to 52, according to a University of Michigan report released on Tuesday.

With careers, families and kids, Gen X just has bigger concerns, the long-term survey found. They are only slightly more interested in climate change than their parents' generation – even though more than half of those surveyed believed climate change is a real problem, the study found.

"They're busy and they don't sit around evenings studying the carbon budget," said University of Michigan political scientist and study author Jon D. Miller.

More concerned about a tough economy, Gen Xers simply have less time to pay attention to - and fret about – climate change, Miller said. In 2009, 22 percent of Generation X adults said they followed climate change either very or moderately closely. In 2011, 16 percent did.

The study is the fourth in a series following Gen Xers – those born between 1961 and 1981 – since 1986. The new "Generation Report"[pdf], funded by the National Science Foundation, focused on the responses of some 4,000 Gen Xers' to questions about climate change each year from 2009 to 2011. Participants were asked a number of other questions about their lives and beliefs as a part of these annual surveys, which will be the focus of future reports. 

Despite the lack of concern about climate impacts, 66 percent of Gen Xers surveyed believed that the Earth's climate is changing, while 10 percent did not believe mainstream science on global warming. 

Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved with the survey, was encouraged that a majority of Gen Xers recognized the threat. Once the economy recovers, he said, people will be better prepared to tackle climate change.

"Because they recognize the reality of the problem, they will be more primed to act on the problem," Mann said.

Generation X adults with more education were more alarmed and concerned about climate change, the study found. Nearly half the liberal Democrats surveyed were alarmed or concerned. None of conservative Republicans were. 

Miller was surprised to find that the level of concern was lower for Gen X parents than for childless Gen Xers, since it's those kids that will have to deal with the future climate. 

"I think it's really just the fact that we have 24 hours in a day, and running a family these days is a very time-consuming task," Miller said. "They're just not allocating large amounts of time to any public policy issue, but the ones they do choose to follow tend to be more local things like schools, or big things like the economy." 

That's not likely to change as long as Generation X is distracted by potentially losing their jobs, 401k plans and mortgages, added Bill Patzert, a climatologist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. A Twitter post every now and then won't do much good.

"The climate crisis can't be solved in 140 characters," Patzert said. 

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