Japanese youth show little interest in climate change

The Japanese government is trying to change consumer behaviour but fewer young people are taking climate change seriously. Tatiana Schlossberg explains these developments in a recent New York Times article.

 

Japan Is Obsessed With Climate Change. Young People Don’t Get It

At 12:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, the Ministry of the Environment offices here were almost completely in darkness, lit only by the silver-blue glow of computer screens.

All of the government ministry offices are supposed to go dark for an hour in the middle of each day to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Satoru Morishita, deputy director general of global environment affairs at the ministry, said the policy is a daily reminder of the stakes of climate change.

“We’re trying to change behaviors in addition to changing attitudes on climate change, and from that, to change the whole society,” Mr. Morishita said in an interview.

But the Japanese people, particularly young people, do not seem to be heeding Mr. Morishita’s wishes. A recent government survey showed that nearly 75 percent of Japanese people ages 18 to 29 expressed interest in climate change, an impressive figure by international standards. But it is a noticeable drop from the close to 90 percent interest stated by the same age group just a few years ago.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed similar results: 75 percent of Japanese citizens over the age of 50 said global warming was a major threat to the country, compared with 59 percent of those ages 18 to 34.

Because Japan has to import most of its energy, and because of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, the country has an almost obsessive interest in tackling energy issues. The apparent drop in concern by Japanese young people alarms many in government, including Mr. Morishita.

“I want young people to understand that climate change is their problem, too, and to act on it,” he said.

This nation’s approach to fighting climate change provides an illuminating contrast both to other countries straining to engage the public on the issue and to those that deny it altogether. While the United States took a global leadership role on climate change under President Obama, President-elect Donald J. Trump appears uncertain whether climate change is real, or if it is, how to deal with it

The Japanese people, though largely united in recognizing the threat of global warming and rising sea levels, are likely to face hurdles in reforming their energy policy, including some resistance from young people who say the nation faces more pressing problems, like the economy.

To spur interest among the young and old, the government last summer began a campaign called “Cool Choice,” which encourages consumers to buy energy-efficient appliances.

The country has several other energy-saving and environmental initiatives, including a complicated (to foreigners) trash-separation plan. Nevertheless the municipal recycling rate hovers around 20 percent, according to environment ministry data from 2012, the most recent year data was available, which is relatively low among developed countries. However, the amount of waste per capita is very low — in 2011, it was 902 pounds a year, compared with 1,628 in the United States.

In 2005, the government unveiled “Cool Biz,” a campaign to reduce energy consumption in the summer by discouraging the use of air-conditioners and encouraging workers to dress more casually — wearing short-sleeve shirts, for instance.

The program has a winter counterpart, called “Warm Biz,” which began at the same time but gained more steam after the Fukushima disaster. It encourages people to use less heat in the winter, suggesting things like holding nabe (a Japanese hot-pot dish) parties with family and friends to stay warm. This campaign also has a mascot named Attamaru, a “warm ninja” who gives tips on staying warm.

In a new effort to capture young people’s attention, the government has begun studying the possible environmental benefits of the sharing economy, since this generation seems less interested in owning cars, homes or bikes, environment ministry officials said. And since many campaigns here have mascots, those officials are soliciting designs for a three-dimensional character, hopefully inspired by Hatsune Miku, a digitized pop star.

So far, some young people seem unmoved by the government’s efforts.

Sui William McCauley, 24, a graduate student in journalism at Waseda University here, shrugged at the public education campaigns. “That just feels like, whatever,” said Mr. McCauley, who grew up in Sendai, north of Tokyo on Japan’s main island.

“Maybe if they say you should drink whiskey when it’s cold, I’ll do that,” he said.

His view might reflect a much deeper generational divide in Japan, according to Midori Aoyagi, principal researcher in the Integrated Environment and Economy Section of the National Institute for Environmental Studies, who studies public opinion on climate change in Japan.

She said that in her focus groups with Japanese millennials, she “always felt a kind of hopelessness” toward their everyday lives, their careers and social issues, possibly a result of having grown up during a prolonged period of economic stagnation known as the lost decades.

Interviews with several Japanese students and office workers ages 22 to 26 elicited similar responses to arguments for the need for urgency on fighting climate change. The young cited the huge scale and timeline of the problem, a feeling of powerlessness, silence from the media, and preoccupation with more important issues.

Several said other issues seemed more pressing for Japan than climate change: a stagnating economy, a declining population and tensions in East Asia, to name a few. Many worried about energy security — only three of the country’s 45 nuclear reactors are now operational, a result of safety concerns after Fukushima — and expressed hope that Japan would invest more in renewable energy.

Most of them said they didn’t really believe that almost 75 percent of their contemporaries were actually interested in climate change. It might be considered rude in Japan to say you are not interested in something, and most Japanese people know they are supposed to care, even if that rarely translates to action.

Maki Nakamatsu, 24, a graduate student at Waseda University, said the government should spend less effort on a public awareness campaign — “That’s not the point,” she said — and more on encouraging or requiring environmentally conscious behavior.

In a 2007-8 Gallup World Poll, Japan had some of the world’s highest levels of awareness and understanding of climate change — at 99 and 91 percent, respectively — and the fifth-highest level when it came to thinking climate change was a serious problem (around 80 percent), possibly because climate change is taught in most schools.

Japanese energy consumption has fallen every year for the past five years, but the government wants to cut energy use more deeply and faster to meet pledges made under the 2015 Paris climate accord.

An inherent tension between the seeming ineffectiveness of immediate and individual action and the long view the government is trying to take here may be common to every society trying to reduce emissions and to encourage participation.

Campaigns and voluntary programs like the ones Japan has started are “relatively small bore,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the director of its climate change communication program. “It’s very difficult for individual people to see how those behaviors relate to climate change.”

That seems to be part of the problem for many young Japanese like Shota Kanai, 23, an analyst at an e-commerce company in Tokyo.

“This issue is too big,” he wrote in an email, “and I feel my actions cannot make any difference.”

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