Debunking the Climate Change Generation Gap

29 September 2021

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In the enduring generational wars portrayed in the media, perhaps none is quite so glaring as that concerning climate change.

Young people, so the story goes, care intensely about the environment. As they nibble on their cicada burgers, engage in grasscycling, and don their hemp jumpers, they raise a collective emoji-infused eyebrow in the direction of everyone over 50.

But as with many popular stereotypes, it's always worth looking at the data. While it's true that for many years, there was a pronounced generational gap in attitudes towards climate change, that appears to be changing. A recent study in the UK by Rest Less - a charity which supports and provides advice to older people - found that midlifers feel a huge sense of responsibility for the health of the planet and their role in reducing climate change.

A joint study by Kings College London and the New Scientist Magazine similarly found that around seven in 10 people from all generations surveyed say climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues are big enough problems that they justify significant changes to people’s lifestyles. Based on data collected from 0ver three million interviews from countries across the world, this study found was no real difference in agreement between Baby Boomers (74%)—the oldest generation polled—and Gen Z (71%), the youngest.

There are nuances, to be sure. The world's largest survey on climate change to date—the People's Climate Vote, conducted jointly by the UNDP and Oxford University—found a direct link between a person’s level of education and their desire for climate action. This finding held true for lower-income countries such as Bhutan (82%) and Democratic Republic of the Congo (82%), to wealthy countries like France (87%) and Japan (82%).

In the United States, political parties are a relevant variable when looking at attitudes towards climate change. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, Pew Research found that younger adults are much less inclined than their older counterparts to support the increased use of fossil fuel energy sources. In the Democratic party, there are far fewer generational differences.

In what constitutes what's perhaps the most interesting set of findings—(at least to my mind)—a ten-year longitudinal study conducted in New Zealand found that a generation gap in mean climate change beliefs does exist across generations, but not over time. The authors speculate that older cohorts started from a lower initial belief level (circa 2009), but that all age cohorts increased their belief level at a similar rate over the last decade. This study has yet to be replicated, but it sounds intuitively right.

To the extent that a generational gap around climate change still exists within and across countries on certain dimensions, assorted remedies have been proposed to close this gap. Most of them centre around fashioning communication that is designed for and directed towards older people. Particularly given that older people are most at risk health-wise from the effects of global warming, it's also vital that we involve older people in global discussions about climate change.

In addition, we need to consciously do away with age-based stereotypes where climate change is concerned. The famous photo of 77-year-old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman being dragged away by police during a 2019 Extinction Rebellion in London is precisely the sort of media coverage of which we need to see more.

In my own household, I can only say that my barely-boomer husband and my barely-Gen X self have made enormous strides on this front over the past decade or so. For starters, we've been carless for the last 15 years. This once meat-and-potatoes lass is now happily consuming Plant burgers. And just the other day my husband ordered a box of eco-friendly washing up liquid, something we'd eschewed for years on the ground that it doesn't work as well. (It does.)

And who knows? Maybe one of these days I'll buy that soy-based cashmere sweater I've been eyeing...

This blog was originally posted on the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing

About the Author

Delia Lloyd is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. A seasoned writer and editor, she worked for a decade in radio, print and online journalism. Her reporting and commentary have been featured on outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The BBC World Service.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.