As the pace of climate change accelerates, it is becoming clear that sea-level rise and other environmental transformations won’t just affect future generations. Instead, young people alive today are likely to see the full impacts of climate change within our lifetimes.
This may lead to the assumption that people in this generation should care more about climate change than other Americans and should be motivated to do something to stop it. However, nationwide studies have shown that 18-34 year olds are no more engaged in the issue than older adults.
In fact, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, they are less likely to say that they and their peers are acting to reduce climate change’s effects, and no more likely to say that the issue of climate change is personally important to them.
Young Miamians are living in one of the most climate-vulnerable cities in the United States. I conducted a study investigating their perspectives on and experiences with climate change in South Florida, interviewing young adults who were students at Miami-Dade College and Florida International University.
In these conversations, patterns emerged that can help us engage more people in climate issues, and especially the young people whose futures will be shaped by its effects.
These young adults do not believe that local, state or national governments will act to mitigate climate change’s effects on their home city. As one 18-year-old stated, “They’re trying to make their profits and not worry about the big issue here.”
Instead, they say any change has to come from individuals making environmentally friendly choices in their daily lives, things like driving less and buying local produce.
This individualized model of change requires that one person’s actions be matched by the actions of others in order to create a cumulative effect. However, without seeing any move to address climate change on a collective level, many participants in my study doubted that other people would actually make these changes to their behavior.
As a result they didn’t think that their own actions would have any impact on the situation, discouraging them from further engagement with climate issues.
“It matters to me, unfortunately I don’t invest as much time as I would like to in it. I do want my kids to have a world where they can live in, and my grandchildren,” said another FIU student. “I do care, I just wish I could find ways to get a little bit more involved than just putting things in the recycling bin.”
Their perspectives illuminate a flaw in popular environmental messaging. The prevalence of this sense of personal responsibility for change is having the opposite of its intended effect, turning people away from involvement rather than creating action.
People understand that the emissions from their daily commute are just a drop in the bucket compared to the corporations that have produced 71% of global emissionssince 1988. This excess can’t be addressed by shaming individuals for not taking the bus, or for not buying fluorescent light bulbs.
Instead, environmental activists must engage people in climate change as the political and social justice issue it truly is.
To limit climate change’s effects, we need more stringent regulations on corporate emissions and rapid implementation of clean energy technologies. We can help implement these policy changes, not as consumers but as voters. Young people who care about climate change can make a difference for their own futures by exercising their political power.
Maggie Gallagher is a graduate of the UCLA Department of Anthropology and a Lemelson Anthropological Honors Scholar.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.