Youth Concern About Climate Change Drives Civic Engagement
Lead Author: Sara Suzuki, Postdoctoral Researcher
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Peter de Guzman
CIRCLE’s research over the past two decades has demonstrated that youth are far from politically apathetic; in fact, they care deeply about issues and about improving their communities. In recent years, youth concern about climate change has emerged as one of the top issues driving both their activism and their participation at the ballot box. This creates potentially fruitful pathways for youth civic engagement: social movements and issue advocacy organizations can connect elections to their work, and partisan campaigns and organizations can bring in youth by talking about issues they already care about.
Understanding how different youth, in different parts of the country, reflect on the environment and climate change as a political issue, and how it relates to their capacity for civic action, can help maximize the potential of those civic pathways.
CIRCLE has partnered with Action for the Climate Emergency (ACE) on ongoing research that explores in depth the role of young people’s concern about climate change, and how it relates to their readiness for civic participation. This analysis shares initial findings from our review of national AP VoteCast and CIRCLE polling data; later this year we’ll publish additional data from an exclusive CIRCLE/ACE survey of young people in key states.
- In 2020, nearly a third of young people named climate change as one of the top three issues that influenced their vote for president.
- Asian youth and young people in Western states are more likely to say climate change is one of their top issues.
- Young people who prioritize climate change as a political issue score higher on “civic readiness” than those who do not.
Engaging Youth through Climate Change
CIRCLE’s 2020 pre-election poll of young people ages 18-29 found that 13% of all youth named climate change the top issue that would influence their vote for president—the highest of any issue. Nearly a third of young people (31%) named it one of their top three issues, nearly tied with the 32% who had affordable healthcare in their top three. After the election, 74% of youth who voted for President Biden said they wanted him to prioritize leading a transition to renewable energy, trailing only COVID-19 vaccination and “combating violence against people of color” as priorities for the then-new president. Climate change is also potentially an important way to reach conservative youth. Among Trump voters, young voters aged 18-29 were more likely than older voters aged 45+ to care about climate change.
Not all youth are equally likely to prioritize climate change. In 2020, Asian youth were more likely to select it as a top issue. However, our polling was conducted in the midst of a surge of racial justice activism after George Floyd’s murder; Black and Latino youth in our survey chose racism as their top issue. Organizations should not assume that youth of different backgrounds or identities are naturally more or less interested in climate change; in fact, 40% of youth in our survey who selected climate as one of their top three issues also selected race.
Instead, they should consider how tapping into young people’s broader concerns and experiences can help engage them. For example, groups or movements concerned about climate change may consider emphasizing the effects on human health, since affordable and accessible healthcare is another major concern for many youth.Highlighting the links between climate justice and racial justice is also a promising approach: our research shows that of the people who selected climate as a top three issue, 40% also selected race as a top three issue, which presents opportunities to connect youth to civic action through approaches grounded in their identities and experiences. For example, some youth may feel excluded from activism that underscores experiences (e.g., exposure to outdoor activities) that are less accessible for them. Outreach may also need to be different for youth without college experience than for those who may have academic and extracurricular opportunities to learn about climate change on campus.
About Our Partnership: ACE
CIRCLE’s partnership with ACE (Action for the Climate Emergency) explores how issue-focused organizations can reach a wide diversity of young people in order to deepen their civic and political engagement. By conducting surveys and analyzing programmatic data, we seek to understand how ACE and others can strengthen their youth outreach and organizing—especially with historically underserved groups like rural youth, young people of color, and newly eligible voters.
There were also regional differences. Young people in Western states (AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NV, NM, OR, UT, WA, WY) were disproportionately more likely to prioritize the environment and climate change as a political issue, which could be due to more direct experiences with droughts, wildfires, and other phenomena exacerbated by climate change. Outreach and engagement strategies may need to be different for young people who are seeing the effects of climate change firsthand than for those who may be worried about it but are not experiencing its impact on their daily lives in the same way. As always, it’s critical to talk to diverse young people in different parts of the country and listen to their experiences and concerns.
Climate Change Concerns and Civic Readiness
Just as critical is whether young people have the access and opportunities to participate in electoral and other forms of civic engagement. We created a “civic readiness” score based on whether young people reported they had or were interested in partaking in various civic activities like going to a demonstration or serving in a group leadership role. We find that young people who rank the environment and climate change as one of their top issues are much more likely to be in the top quartile in civic readiness than those who did not: 38% vs. 25%. Conversely, more than a quarter (27%) of young people who did not choose climate as a top issue score in the bottom quartile of civic readiness, compared to 16% of climate-focused youth.
This difference in civic readiness underscores that an interest in climate change has been, and can continue to be, an effective pathway for young people to participate in civic life. At the same time, the fact that nearly half (45%) of climate-focused youth score in the bottom half of our civic readiness scale shows that there is still massive untapped potential to engage young people based on their interests and create opportunities for them to develop and wield their civic power.
Young people will continue to play a leading role in the fight to address climate change and other causes they believe in. Their knowledge, passion, and unique ability to reach and engage their peers are powerful assets. Political campaigns, nonprofits, activists, educators, and other stakeholders must work to create and expand civic pathways for diverse groups of young people to become voters and lifelong civic actors.