Chapter 3 of Climate of Contempt describes the politics of climate policymaking in the 21st century, including internecine conflicts among Democrats that are partly generational. By now, it probably goes without saying that overcoming intraparty conflict is crucial to realizing the party’s hopes for stronger climate policy.

A few months ago The Economist ran a series of stories on “Generation Z,“ people born between 1997 and 2012 (inclusive). According to one of the editors of the series, a self-described “Millennial,” it triggered intergenerational conflict within The Economist staff. No doubt that controversy was amplified by one of the articles in the series, entitled “Generation Z is unprecedentedly rich.

Young people certaintly don’t feel rich, regardless of the data. It may be that social media creates a gap between perception and reality on this question, and social media plays a larger role in shaping successive generations’ perceptions of the world. So it is worth drawing attention to information that could narrow that perception gap. A few years ago a group of journalists formed a news service called “Positive News” whose tag line is “help us break the bad news bias.” And books like Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation are in this same spirit, though both books have provoked scorn from some on the progressive left.

Regardless, there are solid reasons why younger people feel cheated or unlucky. First, even if their absolute wealth is greater than that of previous generations, people care more about their relative position in society than they do their absolute wealth. (The divide-the-dollar game is the simplest illustration of this.) As I note in Climate of Contempt, by most empirical measures levels of economic inequality are higher today in the U.S. than at any time in the modern regulatory era.

Second, the ratio of median home price to median income has grown steadily since the 1980s, creating a sense among younger adults that they are worse off than their parents. Housing NIMBYism in growing cities amplifies that sense among young people who aspire to live in those places, and breeds disaffection with local politics. So younger generations’ frustrations about economic inequality are not without foundation.

So both things can be true. Generation Z’s absolute wealth may be unprecedentedly high, but they also face barriers to upward mobility that Boomers and Millennials did not. And because overconfidence bias affects us all, there is a generational disconnect on the question of whether things are great or terrible, one that sometimes sows division on the left.

Older people compare the material lives of younger people to their own at the same age, and dismiss their concerns about housing and work opportunity.* To younger people, that attitude seems myopic and insensitive; and as  “digital natives,” they may dismiss the notion that their online world is misleading them about economic conditions: We grew up with this technology. We understand it better than previous generations do. As George Orwell famously said, “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”[1]

The research summarized in chapter 4 of Climate of Contempt tells us that even if we have good instincts about detecting falsehoods, algorithms interact with common human biases to censor both our news and our online friends in ways that make us more credulous (less skeptical) of information that confirms our prior beliefs than information that challenges them. This is true of Boomers and non-Boomers alike.

We know for example that social media users forward stories even if they believe they are false, either out of carelessness or in the hope that the falsehood will persuade someone in the desired way. It is likely that some of the people who opposed the election of Barack Obama forwarded stories questioning his citizenship even if they knew the stories weren’t true. And some of the people opposed to Donald Trump forwarded stories about the discredited Steele Dossier in disregard to its truth or falsity.

When overconfidence mistakes are also self-serving, we call it hubris. But that term has negative connotations that ought not to be applied to students and other young people. We expect people to learn from experience, and students ought to have license to make those kinds of mistakes and learn from them.

Experience has created more tactical sophisitication among the crop of young progressives elected to Congress in 2018. Many of the moderates who those progressives viewed as adversaries five years ago have (and had) impeccable voting records on climate and energy issues. Consequently, in the intervening years progressives’ rhetoric toward moderate Democrats on climate issues has softened as the value of partnering on common goals has become more apparent. Indeed, there is more recognition among people in both wings of the DemocraticParty today that exploiting intraparty unity over the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions limits is more important than their second order disagreements over how to seek that objective.[2]

On the other hand, we should expect more circumspection and accuracy from seasoned experts, including climate writers, academics, and others. They ought not to get a pass when they shade or misrepresent the truth about people or issues. If they write or podcast about climate science, they ought to be basing their factual assertions on what the community of climate scientists believes. If those beliefs seem too boringly circumspect and qualified to attract clicks, it is the expert’s job to make them less boring without misrepresenting the truth. And those who write or podcast about politics ought to represent what the community of experts (read: political scientists) say about how regulatory politics works. Unfortunately, as Part I of my book illustrates, sometimes they do not.

The complicated truth is that some things are great, and some are (frankly) terrible. And we can only make political progress by acknowledging both sets of truths.

In a Congress and nation where neither party commands overwhelming support,  the real choice is a binary one. In that context, demonizing or misrepresenting partisan allies can do real damage to the common cause. There isn’t much division among Democrats — young, old, progressive, moderate — about the wisdom of pursuing the energy transition. And climate policy is one of those winning issues for some “purple” district Democrats. Will it drive voters’ votes? No one knows. But we will find out.  – David Spence


* This sense of privilege also marks a difference between Republicans’ and Democrats’ negative partisanship. According to Pew Research polling, majorities of each group see the other as “immoral, dishonest, unintelligent, and close minded.” But only 26 percent of Democrats described Republicans as “lazy,” while 62 percent of Republicans tagged Democrats with that label.

[1] Orwell actually did write this; it is not one of those misattributions that the Internet has made so common. It comes from an introduction Orwell wrote for a book of essays by another author, Herbert Read. One reddit user, “r/BoomersBeingFools,” is such a persistent and entertaining generational warrior that one wonders if s/he is a bot. But the sentiment this reddit user expresses is not uncommon:

The thing about social media is that if someone gets on it you get to see what kind of person they are and what they think. The stuff that a lot of these Boomers post on their profiles is so shockingly dumb that I don’t even know what to say. It’s often disturbing as well. Boomers don’t seem to have any media literacy at all. Like literally whatever insane thing they come across on [Facebook] they will believe.

[2] Nor was there much truth to the perception (of some progressives) that moderate Democrats had failed to pursue climate policy before 2018, as Appendix D of my book illustrates.