American Teens Know Very Little About Climate Change

A new study finds that adults are more sure climate change is happening than teens. Are we doomed?


Ethonomic Indicator of the Day: 54% — The percent of American teenagers who think climate change is happening.

It’s a rare month where a new study does not come out bemoaning how badly America’s youth are doing in one field or another. This time, it’s climate change. They don’t know very much about it. Does that matter?

The study, from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, asked teenagers a variety of questions about climate change’s facts, causes, and potential solutions. In terms of understanding what was going on, the teens fared worse than adults asked the same questions. According to the study:

  • 54% of teens say that global warming is happening, compared to 63% of adults
  • 35% of teens understand that most scientists think global warming is happening, compared
    to 39% of adults
  • 46% of teens understand that emissions from cars and trucks substantially contribute to global warming, compared to 49% of adults.

Who cares? Teenagers consistently get questions wrong on everything from geography to politics (and don’t even think of asking them about math). And then they grow up to be adults who, presumably, know slightly more than they did when they were teenagers. What’s worrisome is that the current generation of adults doesn’t seem quite on the ball about fixing climate change. Generally, progressive opinions re-enforce themselves generation over generation (just look at the eroding opposition to gay marriage). If teens today are less sure of climate change than our already very unsure adults, we may have some issues when they take over (if we make it that far).

On the flip side, while they understand it less, teens are more likely than adults to think that worldwide solutions will fix the problem, giving us some hope that the next generation may try to implement some real change. They think that switching to renewable fuel will prevent climate change (44% to 43%, for adults) and are much more bullish on the effectiveness of electric cars (34% to 28%), which bodes well for a future America run on things other than fossil fuels. Even so, if only 63% of adults say climate change is happening, it’s about time that everyone–young and old–go back to school.


About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Impact section, formerly Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at]