Student Well-Being

Teenagers See Climate Change as a Threat, But Aren’t as Clear on Its Causes

By Arianna Prothero — December 20, 2019 2 min read

Climate change has spurred some of the greatest youth activism in a generation, with millions of students the world over turning out last September to call for action against a warming planet. Many continue to protest.

But while teenagers are aware of the effects of climate change and that humans play a role in it, many are not so clear on the specific causes, according to a poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Eighty-six percent of teens believe human activity is causing the climate to change, compared to 79 percent of adults.

However, when it comes to what specifically is behind the global rise in temperatures, teens (and adults) are all over the place.

The biggest sources of greenhouse gases include transportation, electricity, agriculture, forestry, and manufacturing.

But just over 60 percent of teens identified either driving cars and trucks, burning fossil fuels for electricity and heat, or cutting down forests as major contributors to climate change. Thirty percent cited air travel and 18 percent pointed to raising cows for milk and food.

Fifty-seven percent of teens incorrectly faulted plastic bags and bottles for being major contributors to climate change. Thirty-nine percent checked “the sun getting hotter” and 20 percent indicated volcanic eruptions as major contributors, both of which are also incorrect.

For what it’s worth, teens’ perceptions about how much they know isn’t too inflated. Seventeen percent of those surveyed said they know a lot about the causes of climate change, while 48 percent indicated they knew a moderate amount.

In terms of where students are learning about the causes of climate change, just over half, 54 percent, reported that they had learned a lot or a moderate amount at school. Forty-six percent said they learned about ways to reduce the effects of climate change in school.

The Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll surveyed a nationally representative sample of 629 teenagers and 2,293 adults online and by telephone from early July to early August. The results among teenagers have a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Many teenagers consider climate change one of the biggest issues facing their generation.

Sixty-one percent of teens listed climate change as an “extremely” or “very” important issue to them, which was slightly lower than the 64 percent of adults who called it very important, and lower than it was for issues such as health care, the economy, and gun policy.

A majority of teens reported feeling afraid, angry, and motivated by climate change.

Finally, a quarter of 13- to 17-year-olds say they have taken some form of action to address climate change, such as attending a protest, writing to their lawmakers, or participating in a walkout.

There is strong optimism among teens that the worst effects of a warming plant can still be abated: 88 percent said there is still time to prevent the worst of climate change.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.