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On Climate Change, the Generation Gap Is Widening

Poll suggests Millennials more likely to support a low-carbon economy than Boomers.

By Geoff Dembicki 16 Mar 2015 |

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

Two months after Metro Vancouver's ban on organic waste in landfills came into effect, many restaurants are still unsure how to meet it. Compost bins stink. They fill up with maggots and vermin. Disposal fees can be hefty. But a start-up called Urban Stream claims to have a solution. It rents composters with a bio filter for odours. They break down food scraps into nutrient-rich worm castings, which the company then sells to local farmers. "It's logical, simple and economic," said founder Nick Hermes.

It's good for the climate as well. When food scraps are buried in a landfill, the lack of oxygen causes them to emit methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Add to that the carbon emitted by trucks bringing those scraps to the landfill. Hermes is 30 years old. He wants Urban Stream "to make the world a better place," he said. In doing so he also hopes to save his customers money. "We're a sustainable solution marketed as an economic solution," Hermes told The Tyee.

That's not how climate action is usually portrayed. Policymakers like Prime Minister Stephen Harper have warned efforts to address global warming could "destroy jobs and growth." But such talk may appeal more to Baby Boomers than to Millennials like Hermes. Last spring, a Strategic Communications poll suggested 42 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds in B.C. "strongly agree" the province can address the climate and create jobs at the same time, compared to 32 percent of people older than age 55.

That poll, which was commissioned by the Pembina Institute, Clean Energy Canada and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, seemed to reflect a much wider trend. Last fall, a biannual survey led by the University of Texas suggested two-thirds of U.S. Millennials support efforts to create a low-carbon economy, as opposed to only half of people over age 65. "It certainly is a striking difference," Sheril Kirshenbaum, the survey's director, said in an interview. "That's well beyond the margin of error."

Generation gap

Hermes grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. Though his parents were divorced, both his father and stepfather were "religious composters," he said, proud of the soil they produced from kitchen scraps. In the summer, Hermes would go to a family cabin at Red Deer Lake that had "an incredible garden," he said. "From a very young age I was always playing in the dirt." Such experiences inspired a passion for nature so deep that by age six he was donating some of his weekly allowance to Greenpeace.

That passion never went away. After Hermes finished high school with top marks in math, physics, chemistry and biology, he pursued an engineering degree at the University of British Columbia. "I got a really good understanding of how the world really works," he explained. Hermes set three ambitious life goals, which he described in a blog post last year. "I wanted to grow a million pounds of food, offset a million kilograms of carbon emissions and donate a million dollars," he wrote.

Hermes is not alone in his idealism. Millennials like him are 10 per cent more likely to support a low-carbon economy than their elders, Strategic Communication's poll of British Columbians last spring suggested. Tom Pedersen wasn't surprised by the results. As executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, which helped commission the poll, he admitted that Boomers like him grew up during an era of unprecedented prosperity. "Complacency was bred into us," Pedersen said.

Nobody had to worry about climate change when he was a kid, because the concept didn't exist. But Millennials came of age during an era when the ecological impacts of modern society are taught in the classroom, broadcast on TV and shared on social media. The coming decades will likely bring disastrous floods, storms and droughts. Which is why the current support among Millennials for a low-carbon economy "is not going to go away as they age," Pedersen argued. "If anything it will strengthen."

'Very different culture'

Hermes formed Urban Stream in 2009. Its original goal was to build "micro-farms" in old shipping containers behind restaurants. Food scraps would be fed into a two-stage composter. From the nutrient-rich soil it produced, restaurants could grow their own vegetables. Urban Stream got a fair amount of media attention after the first commercial unit was launched at Luke's Corner Bar and Kitchen in February 2013. "Unfortunately, it was a very niche product with a high price point," Hermes said.

He decided to change the business model. With Metro Vancouver's ban on organic waste starting in 2015, Hermes knew many restaurants would struggle to meet it. So Urban Stream now rents onsite composters without the "micro-farm." Hermes and his team then pick up the worm castings and sell them to local farmers. "The outputs of one industry become inputs of the next," he said. Yet Urban Stream isn't being pitched as a "sustainable" firm. "We just want it to speak for itself," he said.

The seamless integration of the environment and the economy is an ideal that many other Millennials strive for too. Which is perhaps why only 32 per cent of young people see themselves as "environmentalists," a 2014 Pew Research Center poll suggested, compared to 42 per cent of Boomers. "Millennials view environmental protection more as a value to be incorporated into all policymaking than as its own, isolated discipline," a Senior Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute has explained.

Polling last fall from the University of Texas supports that claim. Over two-thirds of U.S. Millennials want policymakers to cut carbon emissions and boost incentives for clean energy, it suggested. About half of people above 65 appear to feel the same. Kirshenbaum sees this as evidence of "a widening gulf" between Millennials and their elders. "I can't say why exactly we're seeing these kinds of trends," she told The Tyee. "[Millennials] grew up in a very different time and a very different culture."

Feel overwhelmed

But the University of Texas findings come with a large caveat. Though Millennials seem to be much more supportive of a low-carbon economy than Boomers, they're also far less likely to vote for policymakers who can help build it. Only 68 per cent of the poll's young respondents said they would vote in the 2014 midterm elections, compared to 87 per cent of older people. It turns out 40 per cent of people above age 60 actually cast a midterm vote. And as for people below age 30? Only 12 per cent.

A similar age gap was revealed in Canada's 2011 federal election. About 61 per cent of electors turned out to vote. But less than half of 25 to 34-year-olds cast a ballot. For younger people the numbers were even lower. Elections Canada later blamed it on rampant political cynicism among Millennials. "That drives me crazy," Pedersen said. For him it's not enough that young people support a low-carbon economy. They have to make their voices heard. "Idealism on its own won't cut it," he said.

Hermes is inclined to agree. "I see a lot of apathy, but I also see a lot of action." Both impulses may have the same underlying cause. Growing up with the Internet and social media has made Millennials more intensely aware of the world's problems than earlier generations. But such awareness can be inspiring and paralyzing at the same time. "There's a lot of things to be dissatisfied with," Hermes said. "It can lead really quickly to an overwhelmed defeatist feeling."

He's managed to deal with such feelings by finding one small area where he can make a difference. Urban Stream is now in the process of finalizing sales procedures, marketing to restaurants and reaching out to local farmers. "We're about to start making money," he said. When the firm does, it will be one more piece of evidence that efforts to address the climate can also grow the economy. "We'll be able to save our customers money by thinking about the whole industry differently," he said.  [Tyee]

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