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Millennials: The Greenest Generation Or More Of The Same?

Camp educator Adam Logan points out features to high school students at a nature camp on Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park.

When she was much younger, Tacoma high school senior Lauren Budd had no trouble convincing her parents to start recycling. But more recently, swaying them to eco-friendly light bulbs was another story.

"No, it costs too much," Budd, 17, remembered her parents saying. "And I'm like, 'It won't, in the end for, like, our power bill.'"

Budd doesn't always win with her parents, who still throw away a soft drink can on occasion, but it's clear she's not the only teen to grasp the importance of these small, cross-generational battles.

"Climate change is affecting the American people now," concluded a recently-released landmark government report, the National Climate Assessment, "and that choices we make will affect our future and that of future generations."  

The implications of that statement aren't lost on even the youngest Millennials. Three out of four teens told The Nature Conservancy “previous generations have damaged our environment and left it to our generation to fix it.”

"Our parents think they're going to die before it affects them," said Griffin Dittmar, 17. "But these problems are already happening now."

One small battle at a time, many teens are pushing back. Andrew Cooper, 15, recently notched a hard-earned victory with his parents, convincing them to stop buying water in plastic bottles.

"This took a long time," said Cooper, a sophomore at Renton's Liberty High School. "This was a lot. My mom was like, 'The convenience!' I'm like, 'That plastic degrades, it hurts your water, the water’s less regulated. When you have one water bottle, you spend a lot less money a month.' It was a lot to convince them."

How Can We 'Go Green'?

?Public opinion polls bear out teens' pro-green inclinations. The poll from The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit that aims to protect ecologically-important lands and waters, found more than 56 percent of teens are more likely to believe nature's worth preserving, not for any benefit we can derive from it, but for its own sake. Only 45 percent of adults felt the same.

Younger generations' policy leanings also trend toward the eco-friendly. A Pew Research Center survey showed more than 70 percent of Millennials would rather develop alternative energy sources than drill for oil, coal or natural gas, and higher proportions of Millennials (64 percent) acknowledge global warming than any other generation.

But Millennials don't always follow through on their eco-friendly attitudes.

A survey from the marketing firm DDB found Baby Boomers were more likely to recycle, use reusable grocery bags or limit water and electricity usage.  And Millennials don't hold a wide edge over their parents in their acknowledgment of global warming — nearly 60 percent of Generation X believes in climate change, too.

Is There Reason For Hope In The Future?

"I have a lot of friends who don't believe in global warming, and I think a lot of that is because of their parents," said Renton high school sophomore Lorrin Johnson, 16.

But Johnson also feels like the tide is turning. Climate change is part of the curriculum at her school, and she thinks adopting a greener lifestyle hinges on convincing teens how easy it can be.

"When somebody decides to bike to work, rather than take their car, that's enough for that day. I feel like all the little things build up," said Bailey Furuyama, 18, a senior at the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma.

Meeting that challenge requires overcoming an age-old obstacle for environmentalists: teens don't see where their waste goes, says Renton sophomore James Ricks.

"They don't have the personal knowledge of the consequences of their actions," said Ricks, 15. "I think making those consequences real to them is very difficult because you can throw numbers at them, but until they see it for themselves and until they see just how much each little action can amount to a real quantifiable result, they won't make that change."

What's At Stake For 'Future Generations'

The stakes are high for Ricks' generation. In the Pacific Northwest, scientists project climate change could cause ocean waters to become more acidic, sea levels to rise and summers to become as much as 30 percent drier than they are now.

Older generations "always talk about the world that their grandchildren are going to have to live in, we’re going to have to save the world for our grandchildren," said Riley Monthy, 17. "Well, now the grandchildren have been born and are they’re starting to get older."

If the National Climate Assessment is right, average annual temperatures will grow along with them, rising between three and nine degrees by 2099.


Above, hear high school students Lorrin Johnson, James Ricks, Alex Chapman, Vincy Fok, Andrew Cooper, Lauren Budd, Bailey Furuyama, Griffin Dittmar and Riley Monthy give their thoughts about the environmental challenges their generation faces.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.