Millennials are Committed to a Multidimensional Approach to Saving the Environment

Reports that Millennials don’t care about the environment may not take into account their creative and comprehensive approaches to creating a cleaner planet.

Students in the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network are routinely faced with a number of challenges as they develop and promote their ideas for change. From disenfranchisement to flat-out mockery, from being ignored to antagonized, Millennials often find that their efforts are not taken seriously.

Add to that list this recent report from a University of San Diego professor, which claims that Millennials are less concerned with environmental protection than our parents and grandparents were at our age. Accusations of flawed research methodology aside, the report doesn’t take into account the tremendous work being done by a number of environmental groups such as 350.org, the Sierra Club, USPIRG, Green for All, I.D.E.A.S., and of course, the Campus Network, all of which claim young people as the majority of their active bases.

Perhaps one reason that Millennials’ environmental concerns appear undetectable is that researchers are accustomed to a very particular, narrow approach to measuring environmental awareness. Millennials view environmental protection more as a value to be incorporated into all policymaking than as its own, isolated discipline. We are concerned with economic growth, job creation, enhancing public health, bolstering educational achievement, and national security and diplomacy. Young people recognize that each of these concerns is inextricably tied to the environment and see environmental health and protection as a means to arriving at any of these outcomes.

To compare the environmental movement of the 1970s to the work of young environmentalists today is also to ignore the changes in sentiment and the nature of the challenges that have occurred over the course of the past 40 years. While environmentalists of years past were primarily aiming to bring clean air and clean water concerns into the national policymaking calculus, environmentalists today are far more worried about solving global problems like climate change by using local environmental solutions.

We are a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. We are pioneering new and exciting strategies to shake the country’s dependence on oil and other nonrenewable resources, remedy environmental damages, and ensure that all Americans have access to clean air and water.

Common to many of the ideas that came out of the Campus Network this year is a fundamental belief in the potential of market-driven innovations for reducing natural resource consumption and encouraging the development of renewable energy sources. Young progressives have come to understand the power of the market in shaping consumer behavior. Campus Network students are uniquely aware of the powerful role that public-private partnerships can play in reforming energy markets.

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For proof that there is life in the youth environmental movement, one need look no further than the Campus Network’s 10 Ideas for Energy and the Environment. Students from around the country submitted ideas to be considered for publication in this year’s journal. Students’ policy recommendations ranged from innovative ways to develop offshore wind power to a novel approach to encouraging brownfield development.

In particular, students are looking at ways to use policy mechanisms to reduce demand for energy without forcing families to take a hit. Erin Hiatt, a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggests that the U.S. Department of Energy should repurpose the “Cash for Clunkers” model that worked well to bolster sales of high-efficiency cars for the market for appliances. By offering financial incentives to consumers looking to offload their old, energy-guzzling home appliances in favor of newer and more efficient models, this program stands to reduce Americans’ demand for oil while minimizing costs and inconvenience for households.

At the same time that they are finding painless ways to reduce energy demand, many students are also looking at new sources of energy. Stewart Boss, another student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, supports bills and policies that help make offshore wind turbines a reality and ensure that electric utilities sign on. Recognizing that the country has a huge amount of potential offshore wind power that we’re not making use of, he drills down on what it would take to tap into this clean resource.

Another interesting idea to emerge from the Campus Network this year is from Cornell University student James Underberg. James proposes that New York State should allow agencies to internalize environmental and labor costs when choosing among bidders for a development contract. Another example of Millennials’ attention to the crosscutting nature of environmental values across policy areas, James’s idea would shift the development paradigm in his state from a one-dimensional cost consideration to a holistic determination that takes environmental damage into consideration.

The Millennial green movement is a movement of future economists, health experts, rights activists, educators, and diplomats, each aware of the interrelation of their disciplines to the global fight for environmental protection. Whether you see them or not, the leaders of tomorrow are already working around the clock to find ways to reform the market to reflect this generation’s demands for a cleaner future.

David Weinberger is the Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at Hunter College of the City University of New York.