Politics of Poverty

Forget Millennials, it’s our grandparents who are the problem

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On September 21, hundreds of thousands of activists came together for the People's Climate March to demand that government and business leaders take bold action before the UN climate meeting in Paris at the end of 2015. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

The Silent Generation is blocking climate action.

“We are coming together collectively to inspire a generation to think differently.” – Keith Weed, chief marketing officer and head of sustainability, Unilever

It’s an ambitious sentiment. Some of the biggest and most successful companies are joining hands to put their creative and marketing prowess to work, helping to inspire young people build a “global movement” to address climate change. In launching collectively.org, they are focusing their resources and energy on addressing what may be the largest social issue of our time.

There’s only one issue, Millennials already think differently about climate change. It’s our grandparents who are the problem.

I should start by saying kudos to the 29 companies and their media partners for lending their weight to any initiative to try to fight climate change, especially one with activism at its core. It’s a lot easier to sit back and throw darts at ideas than it is to help them succeed. The companies certainly deserve credit for doing something.

That said, they seem to be barking up the wrong tree. If these companies are serious about achieving the political transformation required to truly address the climate crisis, they will stop trying to reach me and start turning their attention to my elders.

Survey after survey shows that Millennials already support aggressive efforts to tackle climate change. An extensive Pew survey on the different generational views on social and political issues conducted in the lead up to the 2012 US election put it this way:

“There are deep generational divides over the nation’s energy and environmental priorities, and in terms of general values, it is the Silent Generation that stands apart. In setting America’s energy policy priorities, 71% of Millennials say we should focus on developing alternative energy sources rather than expanding oil, coal and natural gas exploration. Roughly the same number of Gen Xers (69%), and a broad majority of Boomers (60%) agree.

“But among Silents, opinion is more divided; 47% say alternative energy should be the priority, while 40% say the country should focus on expanding exploration and production of fossil fuels.”

The Pew survey showed that Millennials are almost twice as likely as their grandparents to say that global warming is caused by human activity. A recent poll from Harstad Strategic Research, Inc found that US Millennials strongly favor actions to tackle climate change. 79% of Millennials surveyed favor reducing carbon pollution to deal with climate change and global warming. This isn’t limited to generalities either, a whopping 80% of Millennials surveyed support requiring utilities to generate 1/3 of their power from renewable sources like wind and solar in the next 15 years.

When you look at those numbers closely, the generational divide is starker among Republicans than Democrats. As the Pew study notes:

“Among Democrats and leaners, there is virtually no generational divide on whether there is solid evidence of warming (about three-fourths in all generations say this) and only a modest divide on whether warming is caused by human activity…But there are generational differences among Republicans. About half (49%) of Millennial Republicans and Republican leaners say global warming is occurring, compared with 33% of Silent Republicans. There also is a generational gap among Republicans on whether warming is caused mostly by human activity (29% of Millennial Republicans say this compared with just 9% of Silent Republicans).”

The surveys help hone in on the real constituencies opposed to action on global warming in the US: older Republicans. So why then are these companies throwing their investment into convincing Millennials of something they already believe?

One could argue that mobilizing this warm base of support could help shake up the public debate and bring to light the large, willing constituency that backs political action. But this will only really move elected officials if Millennials can actually change the political calculus at the local level in districts and states represented by members of Congress opposed climate action.

According to Pew, while they are the most liberal and Democratic generation, “half of Millennials (50%) now describe themselves as political independents,” which makes them at or near the highest levels of political disaffiliation recorded for any generation on record in the last 25 years. At the same time, their turnout in elections is as much as 30 percentage points below that of Americans 65 and older. This participation only sinks during midterm elections.

So will collectively.org and its corporate backers work to mobilize Millenials to turnout to vote? Will it target obstructionist politicians directly? Will it do registration drives and attempt to empower the generation to make their political muscle a reality? Or is this just a feel-good marketing exercise?

None of these questions are new to major corporations. When they are motivated, companies have shown a willingness and ability to create sophisticated political operations that meaningfully sway voters. Take California’s multimillion dollar battle over Proposition 37 to label GMOs. Some of the same companies behind collectively.org threw tens of millions of dollars into the campaign to block GMO labeling, funding political issue ads and grassroots organizing.

The industry funded advertising blitz helped crater support for Prop 37, which at one time, “was ahead statewide by more than a 2-1 margin.” However you feel about the issue of GMOs, it is very clear is that industry knows how to wage political battles when they want to.

The true test of the private sector’s seriousness when it comes to tackling climate change will be their willingness to engage in this kind of bare-knuckled lobbying and campaigning that influences electoral outcomes in favor of climate action. That may make everyone involved feel a little queasy, but it’s the harsh reality of our current political system.

As Unilever’s Weed told the Guardian, “If the project were to achieve only more awareness without increased activism, it would be deemed to have failed.” I hope that metric extends beyond Millennials to the constituencies truly at the heart of our political gridlock.

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