Memo to Bill Maher: Young People Understand the Climate Change Stakes

Hey, Bill Maher -- at least when it comes to global warming, the kids are all right. It's the oldsters we have to worry about.
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The HBO series Real Time With Bill Maher is one of the more consistently engaging, informative, and funny talk shows on the air. It's also occasionally infuriating. Host Bill Maher is so opinionated, passionate, and over-the-top in his rhetoric that practically everyone is bound to be offended by something he says. (If you're not, you're obviously not paying attention.)

It was our turn to take umbrage at one of Maher's verbal potshots when watching his September 11th show. What got our goat wasn't Maher's political position on an issue but the fact that he got an important fact so fundamentally, totally wrong.

It was toward the end of the program, during a segment focused largely (and ironically) on how badly misinformed the American public tends to be. Speaking about the massive environmental problems our planet currently faces, Maher threw out this comment:

"The sad part of it is that people are more skeptical of global warming now than they were ten years ago. Especially young people. This is really scary. Young people in great numbers think it's a hoax [emphasis ours]."

Maher's right that the right-wing, industry-driven canard that there's no such thing as global warming -- or, if there is, that it's not caused by human activity and therefore there's nothing we can or should do about it -- is being swallowed by a growing number of Americans. But not the young. The fact is that today's youth are a lot smarter about global warming than their elders.

Don't believe us. Check out what Gallup reported after surveying over a thousand U.S. adults between March 5 and 8 of this year -- the latest in their ten-year series of polls on attitudes toward global warming:

Although a majority of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated, a record-high 41% now say it is exaggerated. This represents the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade of Gallup polling on the subject.

Disturbing, right? But what about young Americans? Here's what Gallup found when they broke down the results by age:

Notably, all of the past year's uptick in cynicism about the seriousness of global warming coverage occurred among Americans 30 and older. The views of 18- to 29-year-olds, the age group generally most concerned about global warming and most likely to say the problem is underestimated, didn't change.

That's right -- contra Maher, young people are the one group of Americans who generally don't buy the "global-warming-is-a-hoax" routine. In fact, Gallup's figures show that the percentage of climate skeptics is lowest among Americans 18 to 29 years old, at 31 percent (versus 43 percent for those in their thirties and forties, 42 percent for those between 50 and 64, and a whopping 47 percent among the elderly).

Fact is, today's under-thirty crowd, whom we call the Millennials, have long been the most pro-environment, anti-global warming generation in history. In the 2007 Greenberg Millennials Study (which we sponsored), conducted by the respected research firm of Gerstein | Agne, the more than 2,000 young people surveyed not only believed in the risk of global warming but also strongly favored aggressive action to reverse it. For example:

•Ninety-one percent of the Millennials surveyed agreed that "Man-made causes are destroying our environment and the Earth's delicate ecosystem. As a result, we could see massive, irreversible damage to the Earth's landscape during our lifetimes."

•Ninety-four percent agreed that "Our country must take extreme measures now, before it is too late, to protect the environment and begin to reverse the damage we have done."

•Seventy-four percent agreed that "We must make major investments now to innovate the next generation of non-fossil fuel based energy solutions."

What's more, our results have been matched by those of virtually every other respected opinion survey focusing on young people. According to the Pew Generation Next survey (2007), Millennials overwhelmingly believe the country should do "whatever it takes" to protect the environment, even if it means higher costs. The Magid Associates survey of Millennials (2006) found that young people are more likely than any other group to favor environmental protection, even if lower economic growth is the result. And in the Democracy Corps poll of Millennials (2007), sixty-one percent called global warming "an immediate threat" which demanded that we "start taking action now" rather than in some indefinite future.

Actually, a more accurate take on the Millennials was offered by one of Bill Maher's guests on the same show -- author Paul Rieckhoff, who commented,

I've seen a lot of young activists who are incredibly motivated by the impact of global warming on their lives, and a whole generation of people who've really been activated on a whole variety of social and political issues since 9/11. And if we're looking for a common enemy, global warming could be that common enemy to rally everyone around.

And what about the next age cohort, the kids who today are under age eighteen? They're following in the green footsteps of their big brothers and sisters.

As part of 2008 election coverage, author Susan Goodman surveyed 1,594 youngsters from the second to the ninth grades. What did they consider "the most important [problem] for our new president to work on"? You guessed it--global warming. (Iraq came in second, health care third.) And when fifth grades who took Goodman's survey were invited to send a personal message to President Obama, they wrote letters like these:

"Lots of people care about global warming. I think if you could find a way to let people know that you care about our environment, you could set a good example. I bet you could make lots of people bike to places or recycle, or even use less electricity."--Elise

"I would like you to be friendly to other countries and save our environment."--Stephanie

"If global warming is not decreased it will become extremely dangerous. Many polar bears are dieing."--Henry

"I think you should pay attention to global warming. Why? Because global warming is happening on our planet Earth where both you and I live."--Erin

It seems that one fifth grader, named Ben, spoke for his entire generation when he offered the following succinct, four-part agenda for Obama's first term: "No school on Fridays. Less homework. Stop the war. Stop global warming."

Hey, Bill Maher -- at least when it comes to global warming, the kids are all right. It's the oldsters we have to worry about.

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