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Millennials Re-envisioning Environmentalism and Climate Policy


Millennials are quietly signaling to the generations in power that things are going to be different under their rule. In no place is this generational transformation going to be more impactful than in the politically segregated echo chamber of Washington D.C., particularly on big issues like climate change and the environment.

It’s no surprise then that some political chatterers are starting to get better educated on Millennial intentions. A recent Pew Research poll quantified the unique characteristics of the emerging generation and discovered that we seem “deeply confused.” Millennials are the least likely generation to describe themselves as “environmentalists,” (32% compared to 42% for Gen X) yet an earlier poll showed we overwhelmingly support developing clean energy technologies (71%), believe in global warming (64%), and are more likely to believe so regardless of political party compared to other generations.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times chalks up this type of contradiction as representative of Millennials deep lack of trust in “parties, programs, and people.” This meshes well with poll numbers that find Millennials are more likely to be politically independent (50%) and are the least likely generation to trust other people (19% compared to 31% for Gen X). By extension, it’s not surprising that we’re unwilling to label ourselves environmentalists, right?

Not necessarily. Millennials aren’t the selfish individualists that are indifferent to the environment Douthat and Pew portend. Instead, we view climate and environmental issues differently than those that currently manage the major green groups. Environmentalism is often viewed within a very narrow spectrum of strategies: changing light bulbs, retrofitting homes, recycling, saving old-growth forests, and protecting the dolphins. While these are certainly important issues, Millennials re-envision environmentalism as a value that broadly underpins equally important issues like economic growth, national security, energy poverty, public health, and climate adaptation. In many ways, the traditional environmental movement is too constricting for the globally connected and complex policy issues Millennials are looking to solve. While environmental groups aren’t going extinct, they’re certainly in need of reform and innovation to keep up.

And it’s this last point that potentially defines Millennials the most – innovation. As Pew Research put it, we’re digital natives, “the only generation for which these new technologies are not something they’ve had to adapt to.” We’re comfortable with technology and understand innovation, making it more likely to view it as a solution if used correctly.

It’s no surprise then that Millennials are looking more and more to innovation and entrepreneurship to solve big green issues like climate change, instead of relying solely on traditional movements and activism. For instance, Spark Clean Energy aims to harness Millennial innovation leadership emerging from universities to spur clean energy breakthroughs. Millennials are emerging as leading innovators in everything from next-generation solar power to energy efficient building technologies. The Millennial Trains Project harnesses this innovative spirit through a transcontinental train journey to build out start-up projects. In fact, I participated in the first Millennial Trains Project and engaged with young energy innovators from across the country working in the National Labs, universities, and start-up scene aiming to develop the technologies needed to solve climate change.

Compare this positive momentum to the climate policy debate in Washington characterized most clearly by legislative inaction, climate denial, and relatively modest activist efforts. It is two different worlds— one in which climate and environmental solutions must be fought for, and another where solutions are being actively worked on regardless of the policy battles. Without a doubt, this shift from fighting to doing will fundamentally change the Washington policy debate on climate and environmental policy.

While Millennials have truly embraced innovation as a way to work around the gridlock caused by our predecessors, much more is needed. The big changes needed to solve climate change—clean energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels, batteries that can power any vehicle, safe and cheap nuclear power, and the like— require a collective effort that no single individual can ignite. It requires not only entrepreneurship, but also many of the positive aspects of government – investment in innovation, big science, technology development, and smart policy – that are currently muddied by gridlock.

It is imperative that Millennials not only turn their disruptive instincts toward solving climate change, but solving Washington as well. Shedding the “environmentalist” identity does not mean that Millennials are abandoning the cause; rather it suggests we are rethinking the problems and suitably scaling new solutions. Put another way, rather than hiding in Mom’s basement from the travails of the real world, Millennials are taking on climate change, environmental problems, and maybe even Washington itself.

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2 Responses

  1. While I agree with most of this article, I find some things disturbingly missed by millennials. Because they are so suck in technology, they give their money to charity, rather than their time. Almost all charitable organizations have overhead costs, which often takes 20-90% of the donation. So, when a millennial gives, they are giving much less than they think; sometimes it amounts to squat. Give smarter; give your time.. I never, ever give money; I give my time, and I give it locally to my own community. There are people in your community who really need you, but I don’t see you out there. I go work at the CASS soup kitchen. Where are you? We collect socks, gloves and beanies then distribute to the homeless by the CASS. You’re not there either. Packing food boxes for needy families and my child is helping me. Where are you? My son is 12 and has hundreds of community service hours, worth thousands….and it was all a 100% 1:1 contribution. We did a conservation project 4 months ago, digging out an invasive specie of plants…nowhere to be seen. Today, over 200 people showed up to clean up the desert because 4 Peaks gets trashed by those who go out to party or shoot at broken computers, appliances and trash. With very few exceptions, the cleanup crews were all at least in their mid 30s-60s. I pay attention to who’s doing what, oh yeah. If you want to change the image that you’re a selfish group, you need to prove you truly care about your community. They really need you too, and you sure as hell don’t make as big of a positive unless you get off you’re but and do something about it. Stop the excuses. I’m a single parent. I work full time. Went to school full time. Spent time with family. Am a boy scout leader, and o still make time to give back to my community in a myriad of ways. For your future’s sake, get your hands dirty and experience what it really means to give.

  2. I thoroughly agree and enjoyed this article by Matthew Stepp, and I respectfully disagree with Georgina Marin. I’ve had 9 years in nonprofit management and administration, and my experience is that nonprofits need Millennials to give both their time and money. My experience is also that Millennials are willing to give BOTH …under their own conditions. But we must meaningfully engage them. Native generations are adept at navigating the usual demands on their time and money, at decisiveness in their giving. They must be. And their conditions for giving include our ability to think outside the way we’ve always done it and along the new lines of reform and innovation. We must learn to both share our story and live it. These are the very things for which environmentalism has ever advocated.

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