I’m a millennial. I care deeply about climate change and have built my career around helping mobilise people and politicians to stop its worst effects. I understand that we’re only just beginning to live with the effects of carbon pollution – more frequent and severe storms, increasingly acidic oceans and hotter, drier conditions that could spark conflict over water. Mostly, I know that all these impacts are only going to get worse for our children, grandchildren and many generations to come.
That’s why I’m often frustrated by the narrative of my generation being too self-involved and obsessed with our phones to care about the world around us. On the contrary, there’s a lot of evidence that millennials care more about social good than previous generations.
We’ve ignited campus protests about racial justice, tweeted, shared and signed online petitions to raise awareness about issues, started and supported businesses that focus on social impact as much as profit, and made our values a priority in everyday purchases.
Even the youngest of millennials who can’t vote, like the incredible 16-year-old climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, are speaking out and reminding our leaders that young people will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, and we won’t wait for action.
Millennials are the natural audience for any arguments in favor of climate action: we’ve got the most to lose from climate inaction, and we care about the world. Yet, a Pew poll showed fewer than half of millennials rated global climate change as a top priority for President Obama and Congress, outpaced by education, strengthening the economy and both reducing crime and improving the criminal justice system.
To boot, fewer millennials describe themselves as environmentalists than older generations.
So how do you talk to the largest generation about arguably the biggest issue facing humanity? All it takes is a little framing.
Meet us where we are
Usually when people use this phrase, they’re trying to talk you into taking your message to Twitter or Tumblr. After all, that’s where the millennials are! It’s where they get their news, express their beliefs and spend their free time.
When I say “meet us where we are,” I mean something bigger than finding where your audience hangs out. I mean understanding where our generation is on climate change and speaking about it in ways that are relevant to us. Many polls show that most millennials are progressive on climate change. That means we believe it’s real and man-made and we want to do something about it.
Too often in recent years, the conversation has regressed to debating science rather than solutions. Instead of discussing how we transition to clean energy by 2030 (a position supported by 80 per cent of millennials according to NextGen Climate, a Super PAC focused on climate change), we’re talking about whether a recent cold snap means the scientific consensus is wrong.
There’s no place for millennials in that debate – held mostly by people who’ll be gone before the worst effects of climate change are reality. We want action, not talk. Progress, not stagnation for the sake of an obsolete debate.
Stop focusing on institutional change
The kind of action also matters. There is no shortage of news stories about millennials disappointing voter turnout (just ask the UK’s remain camp), but missing in many of these admonitions is the “why?” A massive Pew survey found that millennials are increasingly “unmoored from institutions,” including political ones. My generation is impatient with their glacial speed and untrusting of their agenda.
When we talk about climate action, so much of the focus is on what large-scale national and international actors can do – the United States government, European Union, the World Bank, the United Nations. We’re asking politicians and ambassadors to speak and negotiate for us. Millennials don’t want to wait for the powers that be to make a plan, they want to act now.
So, start focusing on action
Instead of telling millennials how we need to provide passive support for climate deals, show us how we can make change happen on the ground. Introduce us to sustainable brands so we can vote with our pocketbooks for companies with sustainable supply chains, like palm-oil free lipstick or breweries powered by solar energy.
Help us organise fossil fuel divestment campaigns, a movement that started in 2011 with students at Swarthmore University and has grown to convince the Rockefeller Foundation – run by the heirs of Standard Oil no less – to divest its $4.2 billion in holdings. Empower us to raise awareness among our peers, like Lights Out Canada, a student-launched campaign around climate education that now reaches one million school children.
Make it personal
This year’s election cycle has illustrated that lots of folks – not just millennials – have been disappointed and disillusioned by promises that voting for the right person to hold the right office will actually make change on the issues we care about. That doesn’t mean giving up on getting young people to vote. NextGen Climate is investing $25 million this cycle in youth registration efforts. But it does mean expanding the imperative beyond the president and Congress to people’s communities.
Take the large-scale, system-wide, amorphous and sometimes intangible issue of climate change, and make it local and relevant to the issues millennials see every day. Lots of the most exciting and creative climate solutions are happening in our cities, including the adoption of local Climate Action Plans in the absence of federal action.
The Flint water crisis tied inequality and social justice, which motivate many millennials, to environmental outcomes, something some experts say could have electoral impacts. Similarly, tapping into the human aspect of climate change can make the emotional connection that inspires action. It’s the folks that can’t afford the electricity to power air conditioning or rent on a home outside the floodplain who are on the front lines of climate change.
Ultimately, millennials aren’t much different than everyone else when it comes to persuading us to become politically active on climate change. The biggest distinction? We want to make change. Let’s cut to the chase and talk about how to do it.
Emily Logan is Director of Acquisition and Retention at Care2, where her team works with member activists to spread the word about their petitions, builds petition campaigns into full-scale organizing efforts and helps keep current Care2 members happy and engaged. In her time at Care2 she has also worked extensively with hundreds of nonprofit organizations to help recruit activists and donors and build out their online strategies. Emily has a B.S. in journalism and a B.A. in music from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and currently lives in rainy Portland, Oregon with her cat, Ostrich.