When we talk about "the environment," we are using a very simple term to describe concepts that are so much more complex. The air we breathe, the vast oceans that cover over 70 percent of our planet, the flora and fauna that inhabit each one of the earth's biomes and ecosystems … all of these natural wonders must maintain a very specific equilibrium to flourish.
Starting with the dawn of the industrial revolution, human intervention has posed many challenges to these natural balances, resulting in an elevated number of environmental concerns we face today. With the Great Pacific Garbage Patch menacing the ocean, the Earth's surface temperature expected to rise, and the planet constantly experiencing devastating, extreme weather, it's time to ask ourselves: What are we doing to help?
We surveyed 1,003 people to learn more about their habits, attitudes, and opinions related to environmental consciousness, depending on their age and political affiliation. We wanted to know whether people were concerned about the planet's future at all, what they were most worried about, and what steps – if any – they were taking to make an impact on an individual level.
A soft spot for the environment and world was able to overcome our respondents' generational and political barriers. From Democrats to Republicans, baby boomers to millennials, and everyone in between, the percentage of individuals within these groups who said the environment was important was strikingly consistent.
As respondents' ages decreased, their affinity for the environment did the inverse: 81 percent of baby boomers, 85 percent of Gen Xers, and 87 percent of millennials felt caring for the planet was important.
With an eye toward sustainable consumption – such as prioritizing the purchase of fuel-efficient or electric vehicles over domestically manufactured ones – millennials are staring down the barrel of climate change more than any other generation as the Earth's surface temperature continues to simmer. One study found 76 percent of millennials expressed concern for the effects of climate change in their lifetime, and another 82 percent were worried about their children's quality of life.
On the political side of things, while Republicans were the least likely to care about the environment, it wasn't by much: 81 percent of right-leaning respondents had an eco-conscious streak, compared to 87 percent of Independents and 88 percent of Democrats.
Twenty-nine percent of people listed climate change as the most concerning environmental issue facing our planet today, followed by global warming at 22 percent. While those two terms are often used interchangeably, there is indeed a difference: Global warming describes the increase in the Earth's surface temperature attributed largely to human activity, while climate change is the collection of weather- and geography-related events resulting from fossil fuel consumption (such as extreme weather and the melting polar ice).
Water pollution (12 percent) and air pollution (11 percent) were also of great concern. The latter is a deadly reality in the United States, characterized by smog-suffocated cityscapes and an ongoing struggle to meet EPA standards. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans are at the peril of unsafe drinking water, largely due to industrial dumping and farm runoff leaching harmful chemicals into the water supply.
Overall, Democrats showed a greater level of concern for the environment, particularly when it came to climate change and global warming: Related worries were reported by 38 and 30 percent of left-leaning respondents respectively.
Among Republicans and Independents, feelings of concern were distributed between a larger number of topics: While a much-smaller 14 percent of Republicans were worried about climate change, another 18 percent had water pollution on their mind, compared to just 8 percent of Democrats.
The Paris Agreement is a 2015 climate accord intended to unite the world's governing bodies in the fight against climate change, with the goal of limiting global temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Syria and Nicaragua were the only two countries that elected not to sign on. In 2017, the United States joined their ranks when it withdrew from the accord.
The majority of people, to the tune of 58 percent, felt it was important to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Just 13 percent said no, with another 18 percent expressing indifference.
Twelve percent of respondents admitted to not knowing what the accord was, period. This number was accounted for by 14 percent of millennials (compared to 7 percent of baby boomers and Gen Xers, respectively), and 14 percent of Independents (compared to 12 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats).
Democrats were the most enthusiastic overall about rejoining the Paris Agreement, at 78 percent in favor, followed by Gen Xers and millennials at 60 percent respectively. For yeasayers, there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon; however, the future of U.S. involvement in the accord remains to be seen.
Every journey starts with a single step, and each person's mission to save the environment is no exception. Some efforts are easier and more accessible than others, and according to our survey, people are doing a commendable job, especially when it comes to more easily adaptable behaviors.
Recycling was the most popular environmental-friendly habit among our surveyed population for each demographic, both political and generational. Baby boomers took the cake with a 92 percent adoption rate for this line of effort, and Independents led the way among their peers at 86 percent. Whether you're a current recycler or thinking of turning over a new leaf, here are the EPA guidelines that detail what you can and cannot put in your bin.
Reusable water bottles, energy-efficient appliances and bulbs, and reusable shopping bags were all commonly adopted habits among our respondents. On a larger scale, cities are slowly but surely hopping on board with the wonderful world of reusables by banning plastic bags: Austin, Cambridge, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle have all done away with single-use bags, with a number of other cities implementing a per-bag fee.
Life is all about sacrifices big and small, but that doesn't make the process any easier. Our respondents revealed one core takeaway: People are far less likely to sacrifice something that affects them on a deeply personal level, such as their ability to hear or see (the two things that people were least willing to give up in favor of a healthy environment).
A whopping 89 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Independents were ready to put Donald Trump's presidency on the chopping block to save the environment – largely unsurprising, given his absence would likely create space for their own political persuasions to flourish. Meanwhile, only 23 percent of Republicans were willing to let go of his presidency for the planet's sake. Another 86 percent of Democrats would sacrifice President Trump himself.
Alcohol, social media, team sports, pizza, and eating meat were among the most willingly sacrificed human vices in the name of environmental health. Approaching the bottom of the list, though, we found more emotionally charged topics: the life of someone they knew, their own life, sex, and their family pet, for example. In fact, people were more willing to hand over the life of a stranger than the life of their pet – and this is not the first time such an affinity has been observed.
When the data were sliced by generation, the overall trend remained the same, with a majority of people from baby boomers to millennials willing to exchange Donald Trump and his presidency for a cleaner planet. The youngest generation, backed by a history of negative feelings regarding the current administration, was the most willing to make this sacrifice, at 73 percent (69 percent would sacrifice Trump himself).
In general, the spread was more balanced between generations than it was between politically affiliated respondents, with negligible percentage variations between age categories overall. Respondents across generational lines were fairly unanimous when it came to sacrificing sports games, pizza, walking instead of driving, air conditioning, and cellphones, for example; however, there were certain exceptions.
Seventeen percent of baby boomers were willing to sacrifice sex, compared to 12 percent of Gen Xers and 10 percent of millennials. Meanwhile, 17 percent of millennials were ready to exchange a stranger's life for a healthy environment, compared to just 9 and 5 percent on the part of Gen Xers and baby boomers respectively – potentially a manifestation of the generation's widely debated selfishness and entitlement?
So far, we've discussed the current state of our world. But what about the planet we hand off to our children, and their children after that?
With an eye to the future, 87 percent of respondents said they were teaching their children about the environment, most likely in an attempt to plant the seeds of an eco-friendly attitude in a rapidly declining situation: Only 22 percent of people felt confident they were handing off a healthy environment to future generations, compared to 67 percent who were not confident at all.
In the face of increasingly devastating extreme weather in their own backyard, Americans are becoming more and more agitated about the state of climate affairs. A large majority of respondents expressed concern about the environment's future health across generational lines, with 68 percent of both millennials and baby boomers feeling unconfident. Sixty-three percent of Gen Xers felt the same.
When politics were thrown into the mix, there was less unanimity. One Pew Research Center study revealed Republicans are far less likely to put their faith in the existence of climate change due to human activity and the legitimacy of climate scientists' findings, among other things. These same leanings were reflected in our survey, with 39 percent of Republicans expressing confidence in our environment's future – the highest confidence rating between all of the political and generational groups.
On the other hand, 47 percent of Republicans remained doubtful about the future state of affairs, along with 77 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Independent voters.
For those biting their nails over the environment's decline, there is hope to be had: People are waking up to the complex and difficult realities that are nipping at our heels. From grass-roots movements to large corporations, our planet is finally beginning to take a front seat – and if our respondents are any indication of larger trends, a majority of individuals have our Earth's health and well-being on their mind, regardless of age or political persuasion.
From a desire to rejoin the Paris Agreement to the choice to incorporate small gestures like choosing reusable bags, recycling, and carpooling, people's attitudes and habits indicated a shift toward increased environmental awareness. However, there was a caveat: In many ways, Republicans showed less enthusiasm about taking action to combat climate change, including less willingness to make sacrifices for a cleaner Earth and a less-pronounced concern for a slew of specific environmental issues.
On the whole, though, voters from all walks of life and respondents across generations agreed there is a fight ahead of us. If you're looking to join the effort, here are a few easy ways you can contribute to a healthier planet without turning your lifestyle upside down. By banding together in little ways, we can make the world a better place – so throw out (recycle!) that plastic water bottle and make a change today.
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We surveyed 1,003 respondents about their opinions on environmental issues. Of these, 504 participants identified as men, 497 identified as women, and two identified as a gender not listed in our study. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 78.
There was one attention check within the survey; respondents who failed it were disqualified from the survey, and their responses were not recorded.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is purely exploratory, and future research should approach this topic more rigorously.
It is possible that with more participants, we could have gained more insight into respondents.
We welcome you to share the content of this project for noncommercial purposes. However, we request that you please link back to this page so that credit can be correctly attributed to the authors.