Creating agents of change

Editor's note: Rachel Dreyfus is president of Dreyfus Advisors. She can be reached at Anna Price is research analyst at Dreyfus Advisors. She can be reached at

Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change, particularly young adults, BIPOC communities and liberal-leaning voters.1-4 Informed by more than 30 publicly available research reports, the following post-COVID-19 research roundup of Americans’ beliefs, eco-friendly behaviors and perceived climate change solutions is a snapshot of a topic with fast-changing perceptions. We also examine the psychology behind Americans’ climate change perceptions and behaviors with a focus on how companies and non-profit organizations might leverage this information to not only enhance their mission and brand but also enable Americans to fulfill their vision for a healthier planet.

For the purposes of this article, climate change is “a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates.”32 Changes are driven by human activity (e.g., burning fossil fuels) and are observed through a number of indicators, such as ice lost at Earth’s poles, rising sea levels, increases in frequency and severity of extreme weather, biodiversity loss and more.

That climate change is on the collective mind and nerves is not disputed – beyond activists, government and the news media, pop culture now reflects concern around the issue. Artistic works as disparate as the 2021 Netflix movie “Don’t Look Up,” comedian Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” (with more than 6.2 million YouTube views) and 2019’s off-Broadway play ”Hooked on Happiness” have attempted to tackle the topic. Reflecting care and desire for change, these examples represent a growing form of infotainment designed to break through to those who aren’t paying attention.

But how can NGOs, industry and government rally the public towards active personal and collective behaviors? How can society overcome the paralysis caused by “infowhelm” and denial? As with most complex challenges, one size does not fit all. We will present a simplified continuum of concern for climate change and hypothesize how brands can show support while appealing to consumers across the continuum. We’ll also discuss how brands can rally the public to action, both personal and collective, regardless of level of concern or political ideology.

Significant increase

Recent studies suggest that approximately six in 10 Americans are concerned about climate change.1,5-6 This is a significant increase from the 44% of Americans who were concerned about climate change in 2009. And, corroborating this trend, in Yale University’s segmentation of climate attitudes where “six Americas” were identified and ranked by their level of concern, the most highly-concerned segment (Alarmed) has increased in proportion from 18% in 2017 to 33% in 2021.5 

There are, however, variations in climate change attitudes by age, race and ideology. These variations are described in the following sections.

• Studies show that younger generations (i.e., Gen Z and Millennials) are particularly concerned about climate change2,6 and feel personally responsible to stop climate change from getting worse.8 Over half of 15-39-year-olds worry about climate change regularly, with 39% worrying about it every week. One-fifth of adults 20-39 worry about climate change daily.9 When comparing perceptions across generations, 37% of Gen Zers and 33% of Millennials say addressing climate change is a top personal concern for them while only 27% of Gen Xers and 29% of Boomers say the same.10

• Studies consistently find greater concern for climate change among Democrats and liberal-leaning voters compared to Republicans and conservative-leaning voters.1,6,11 Within the Republican party, younger Republicans are more concerned about climate change, looking more similar to their liberal counterparts.11 A recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center showed that most Gen Z (57%) and Millennial (59%) Republicans say large businesses and corporations are doing too little to help reduce the effects of climate change versus 50% of Gen X and 43% of Baby Boomer Republicans.11 As such, age is a better predictor than political leanings with regard to climate attitudes.

• Studies indicate that concern about climate change is greater within BIPOC communities than non-Hispanic white communities. Among U.S. Hispanics, 81% say addressing global climate change is either a top concern or one of several important concerns to them personally; this is compared to 67% of non-Hispanics.15 Environmental inequities occur in BIPOC versus white communities. For example, when compared to white adults, Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to say that their community has big problems with garbage, waste and landfills, air and water pollution, drinking water safety and a lack of green space and parks.16 Greater concern among BIPOC communities could be due to lived experiences.

Motivate them to action 

We must better understand levels of concern and importantly, the variety of emotions evoked, which in turn will either motivate action, create apathy or raise barriers to engagement. The remainder of this article will address what consumers believe should be done and how to motivate them to action.

Recent attention has been drawn to anxiety related to the climate crisis and the threat of environmental disaster. Symptoms of climate anxiety include panic attacks, insomnia and obsessive thinking, irritability, sadness, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt, frustration or anger and feeling scared or uncertain.3,12 Research studies and national polls indicate that climate anxiety is particularly prevalent among youth and young adults,12,13 indigenous peoples,12 and those who care most about environmental issues.12,13

The continuum line for climate concern and emotion.

Climate content on social channels adds to the already distressing nature of the medium, particularly younger generations who report a range of intense emotions about what they see. (Figure 1 illustrates a continuum of emotional responses to climate change.) A recent poll by Pew Research showed that among social media users, the majority of Gen Z (69%) and Millennial (59%) social media users felt anxious about the future the most recent time they saw climate change content online. Fewer than half of Gen X (46%) and Baby Boomer (41%) social media users reported the same.2 Two-thirds of adults engaged with climate content on social media (67%) said it made them feel angry about insufficient action to address climate change.10 Almost half of Gen Z (49%) and Millennial (45%) social media users felt angry that not enough is being done to address climate change the last time they saw climate change content online.6 No brand wants to make Millennials and Generation Z angry!

Yet, research suggests that eco-anger is associated with engagement in collective, pro-climate behaviors whereas eco-anxiety is associated with lower engagement and paralysis.14 Perhaps, then, evoking anger isn’t a bad thing; however, it should be accompanied by solutions and ways to make a change.

Feasible solutions

Several studies have examined Americans’ beliefs about acceptable and feasible solutions to slow or mitigate climate change.

With regard to willingness to change personal behavior, three-quarters of Americans are willing to make a lot or some changes in their lifestyles to deal with climate change.18 Again results show younger Americans are more likely than older Americans to express concern about their personal impact on climate change.19

One-third of Americans say they have rewarded companies that are taking steps to reduce global warming by buying their products and 43% say that they intend to reward these companies in the next 12 months. Conversely, 28% of Americans say they have punished companies that are opposing steps to reduce global warming by not buying the products.20

Among Gen Z and Millennials, 73% report doing whatever they can to live sustainably on a daily basis. In fact, 37% have changed the products they buy, 27% have changed the way they shop and 26% have changed the amount of products they buy.9

Brands have a responsibility

Americans also express expectations that brands/organizations have a responsibility to contribute to climate change mitigation, with half of Americans saying that companies should be doing “more” or “much more” to address global warming.20 Examples of expected actions by companies include: not advertising their products and services on television networks that spread misinformation about climate change (75%) and purchasing 100% clean, renewable energy to power their operations (70%).

Younger generations express this sentiment more often than older generations. In fact, Gen Z and Millennials report climate change as one of the top social causes with which they would like to see brands involved.9 The majority of Gen Z and Millennial consumers agree with the statement “Corporations (e.g., companies, brands) should take more responsibility for fighting climate change.” Younger consumers expect eco-friendly products, packaging and practices and reusable products from brands.21 Top eco-shopping behaviors of these consumers include purchasing secondhand clothing, sustainably-sourced food, beverage, home products and personal care product. Eco-conscious brands like Grove Collaborative and Lush cosmetics are disrupting their categories by providing direct-to-consumer and in-store substitutes to traditional top brands lacking in sustainability commitments.

Encourage and motivate

How can we encourage and motivate more people to act? Over half (56%) of Americans report talking about climate change “at least sometimes.” A smaller proportion have donated money to an organization focused on addressing climate change (16%), contacted an elected official to urge them to act on climate change (10%), volunteered for an activity that was focused on addressing climate change (10%) or attended a protest or rally to show support for addressing climate change (6%) in the past year.Gen Z and Millennials are more likely than Gen X and Baby Boomers to take at least one of these actions.9 

Positive images of climate change capture attention. Findings from a number of research studies show that positive images of climate change solutions (e.g., solar panels) are perceived more favorably23,24 and are more attention-grabbing25 than negative images of climate change causes or effects (e.g., hurricane damage, smokestacks). These findings might be explained by behavioral theory,26 which indicates that people sometimes avoid fear-based communication and messages if they feel there is no feasible solution to the perceived threat or feel unable to take personal action to reduce the perceived threat. As such, positive images of climate change solutions are more likely to capture attention and motivate engagement/action and overcome denial and avoidance.

Use the right messengers. Americans feel more interested in addressing climate change when calls for climate change action come from younger adults (42%) or people like them (39%).10 Half of Hispanic Americans have also reported being more interested in addressing climate change when urged by younger adults.15 On the other hand, Americans report that their views about climate change are not influenced by religious leaders or political leaders in either party.6

When surveyed, 21% of social media users say they follow an account that focuses on addressing climate change, 21% have liked or commented on a post about addressing climate change and 12% have shared a climate change post with others (net 31% have engaged with any of those three).2 

Here’s where emotions count. People who feel overloaded with doomsday information might feel hopeless and turn away. Brands and NGOs that use a positive tone, providing inspiration, imagination/solutions and desire for a future worth the effort will likely attract more social media followers.

Social influence from family and friends can impact attitudes. Social consensus, or level of agreement in one’s social group about an issue, can have a significant impact on climate change beliefs, attitudes and policy preferences for people across the spectrum of political ideologies, but especially among conservatives.27 For example, researchers in North Carolina found that parents’ concerns about climate change increased when their children communicated climate change education they had learned at school. This effect was particularly strong among conservative parents who had the lowest levels of climate change concern before the intervention.28

The impact of social influence can partially be explained by social identity theory, which states that people derive portions of their self-concept through interactions with the social groups they belong to.29 In a recent survey, only 26% of U.S. adults reported that a friend or family member had encouraged them to get more involved in efforts to address climate change.10 Brands and NGOs can motivate action by providing and promoting opportunities for peer group activities to strengthen consumer identity in caring for the Earth.

Linking climate change to core values may influence perceptions. A study by Goldberg and colleagues30 found that an advertising campaign using conservative spokespersons and linking climate change to conservative values (e.g., faith, national security) increased Republicans’ understanding of the existence, causes and harms of climate change. Further, a study by Sparkman and colleagues demonstrated that reflecting on how one’s eco-behaviors are linked to core values can improve people’s support for climate change policies.31 This is important as mitigating climate change will require both individual and policy-level action. To advance a unifying goal to care for the Earth, brands should consider appealing to common values like being stewards or guardians of the Earth in messages to gain support for Earth-friendly initiatives or at least segment their messaging with a values-based sensibility.

Help us better understand 

It’s clear from this review of more than 30 research reports that Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change, particularly young adults and BIPOC communities. Measurement of both levels of concern and emotions evoked will help us better understand how their behaviors are likely to change.

The elevated concern for the health of the planet has transferred to values and beliefs. Most consumers feel that changes are important, in the form of both personal lifestyle behaviors and brands demonstrating responsibility for climate change solutions. 

Figure two: Brand communications strategy chartWith an understanding of the emotional nuances around climate change, brands can create purpose-driven communications and enable Americans to fulfill their vision for a healthier planet that aligns with their values. Figure 2 lists ideas for communications tactics to motivate consumers across the spectrum of concern unearthed in the research. Examples of brands that illustrate these tactics include Patagonia, Grove Collaborative, Avocado Mattress, Sephora “clean beauty” and TOMS and Allbirds footwear. These and other brands that advocate for the planet and communicate in motivating ways stand to benefit. They will be the growth leaders, as they gain market share and disrupt category leaders that continue doing business as usual. 


1 Kennedy, B. “U.S. concern about climate change is rising, but mainly among Democrats.” 2020. Accessed April 1, 2022.

2 Tyson, A., Kennedy, B., Funk, C. “Gen Z, Millennials stand out for climate change activism, social media engagement with issue.” 2021. Accessed March 31, 2022.

3 Castelloe, M. “Coming to terms with eco-anxiety.” Psychology Today. 2018. Accessed April 1, 2022.

4 Buckley, C. “‘OK Doomer’ and the climate advocates who say it’s not too late.” New York Times. March 3, 2022.

5 Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., et al. “Global warming’s Six Americas.” September 2021. Accessed March 28, 2022.

6 AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. “Where do Americans stand on climate and energy policy?” 2021. Accessed April 1, 2022.

7 Kennedy, B. “Most Americans say climate change affects their local community, including 70% living near coast.” 2020. americans-say-climate-change-impacts-their-community-but-effects-vary-by-region-2/. Accessed March 29, 2022.

8 YPulse. Sustainability Report. 2022. Accessed March 31, 2022.

9 YPulse. “Five stats brands should know about young consumers and climate change.” 2021. Accessed March 29, 2022.

10 Tyson, A., Kennedy, B., Funk, C. “Gen Z, Millennials stand out for climate change activism, social media engagement with issue.” 2021. Accessed March 30, 2022.

11 Tyson, A. “On climate change, Republicans are open to some policy approaches, even as they assign the issue low priority.” 2020. April 3, 2022.

12 Coffey, Y., Bhullar, N., Durkin, J., Islam, S., Usher, K. “Understanding eco-anxiety: a systematic scoping review of current literature and identified knowledge gaps.” The Journal of Climate Change and Health. 2021;3.

13 Clayton, S., Karazsia, B. “Development and validation of a measure of climate change anxiety.” Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2020;69.

14 Stanley, S., Hogg, T., Leviston, Z., Walker, I. “From anger to action: differential impacts of eco-anxiety, eco-depression and eco-anger on climate action and well-being.” Journal of Climate Change and Health. 2021;1.

15 Mora, L., Lopez, M. “Most U.S. Latinos say global climate change and other environmental issues impact their local communities.” 2021. Accessed April 1, 2022.

16 Funk, C. “Key findings: How Americans’ attitudes about climate change differ by generation, party and other factors.” 2021. Accessed March 30, 2022.

17 Ray, S. “A field guide to climate anxiety.” Oakland, Calif.; University of California Press; 2020.

18 Poushter, J., Fagan, M., Huang, C. “Americans are less concerned – but more divided – on climate change than people elsewhere.” 2021. Accessed April 4, 2022.

19 Bell, J., Poushter, J., Fagan, M., Huang, C. “In response to climate change, citizens in advanced economies are willing to alter how they live and work.” 2021. Accessed March 3, 2022.

20 Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Rosenthal, S., et al. “Consumer activism on global warming, September 2021” Yale University and George Mason University.

21 YPulse. “How brands can help the environment, according to Gen Z & Millennials.” 2022. Accessed March 30, 2022.

22 YPulse. “Here are the eco-friendly products Gen Z & Millennials are most likely to buy.” 2021. Accessed March 30, 2022.

23 Chapman, D., Corner, A., Webster, R., Markowitz, E. “Climate visuals: A mixed methods investigation of public perceptions of climate images in three countries.” Global Environmental Change. 2016;41:172-182.

24 Lehman, B., Thompson, J., Davis, S., Carlson, J. “Affective images of climate change.” Frontiers in Psychology. 2019;10.

25 Carlson, J., Kaull, H., Steinhauer, M., Zigarac, A., Cammarata, J. “Paying attention to climate change: Positive images of climate change solutions capture attention.” Journal Of Environmental Psychology. 2020;71.

26 Witte, K., Allen, M. “A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns.” American Journal of Health Behavior. 2000;27(5):591-615.

27 Goldberg, M., van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E. “Perceived social consensus can reduce ideological biases on climate change.” Environment and Behavior. 202;52(5):495-517.

28 Lawson, D., Stevenson, K., Peterson, M., Carrier, S., Strnad, R., Seekamp, E. “Children can foster climate change concern among their parents.” Nature Climate Change. 2019;9:458- 462.

29 Hogg, M., Reid, S. “Social identity, self-categorization and the communication of group norms.” Communication Theory. 2006;16:17-30.

30 Goldberg, M.H., Gustafson, A., Rosenthal, S.A., Leiserowitz, A. “Shifting Republican views on climate change through targeted advertising. Nature Climate Change. 2021;11: 573-577.

31 Sparkman, G., Attari, S., Weber, E. “Moderating spillover: Focusing on personal sustainable behavior rarely hinders and can boost climate policy support.” Energy Research & Social Science. 2021;78.

32 NASA. “Overview: Weather, global warming and climate change.” 2021;,are%20synonymous%20with%20the%20term. Accessed April 7, 2022.