Even with most of the country mired in a historic drought, a spate of storms that left millions without power in the mid-Atlantic, and seemingly more frequent natural disasters, people have better things to worry about than global warming, according to a new study of Generation X-ers. And they're beginning to think about global climate change even less.
Just two percent of those aged 37 to 40 said they follow climate change "very closely," a 50 percent drop from 2009. More than half said they follow climate change "not closely." More than a third say they have only a "moderate concern" about global warming.
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The data comes from the annual Longitudinal Study of American Youth, which has followed the same group of 5,900 people since 1987, when respondents were selected from a nationally-representative sample of 7th and 10th graders.
Why the drop? Study author and University of Michigan professor Jon Miller says that climate change is a complex issue that requires a lot of time to fully understand. It also isn't likely to start meaningfully affecting people's lives for many years, when Generation X will have died out.
"You don't have to know a lot of biology to know what you think about abortion, and if you lose your job, you're going to be concerned with the economy," he says. "Questions like stem cells, climate change, and nuclear power are different. Without some level of scientific understanding, you can't get into them."
Even with the last few years' unpredictable weather, people still don't see global warming as an issue that will imminently affect them. Miller recalls going to a climate change conference during an unusually warm winter at a ski resort in Austria: "The first year, a bartender was saying how he had no snow outside, and hated climate change. Well the next year, we had to cancel and go somewhere else because they had 14 feet of snow and it caved his roof in."
If each season was progressively a little bit warmer, people might be able to more easily understand climate change, but "if it's perturbed, it's hard for people to grasp," he says. "I'm not sure common sense alone will ever carry the day on this. The pattern is not likely to be consistent."
Climate change, besides being controversial, isn't something that can be easily solved with a couple of regulatory changes, and behavioral changes today will take decades to reduce the atmosphere's carbon levels, Miller says.
"It's a challenging political problem because it won't cause a lot of problems in [Generation X's] lifetimes," he says.
In the study, he writes that "adults have a limited attention span for public policy issues and tend to grow tired of the same issues if they persist over a number of years. This argument was made in regard to the public reaction to both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War and it may be applicable to a long-term issue such as climate change."
So, in a world that expects quick responses to imminent problems, people are ambivalent towards climate change. Miller says that's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as elected politicians take the long view and don't let the issue die. According to the study, just 10 people are "doubtful" or "dismissive" about climate change, and that most are simply "disengaged."
"They're not hostile towards it, but they're very busy and this is a complex issue," he says. "If a politician pushes very hard on climate change, there's not going to be a large number of people rising up in opposition."
Surprisingly, people without kids are more concerned than those who have children. But Miller says that's because people without children have more time to learn about the issue.
"If you stop and think about how busy these people are, it's not as surprising as I first thought it was," he says. "They're interested in national issues, the economy, but they're also interested in getting their kids to soccer and swimming practice, and those are concerns that won't affect them 100 years down the line."