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The forgotten generation: older people and climate change

This chapter challenged the idea that climate action is only for young people, and that climate change is not a priority for older people. It shows that, although older people have contributed to greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetimes, they will also be the group most affected by climate change impacts. The chapter concluded by suggesting ways to better engage older people in climate action initiatives.

Gary Haq / Published on 1 December 2023

Haq, G. (2021). The forgotten generation: older people and climate change. In K. Bell (Ed.), Diversity and Inclusion in Environmentalism. Routledge.

Overcoming ageist stereotypes of older people as incapable, passive or disinterested is crucial to mobilising the older generation towards climate action. Climate change will impact older generations more severely than younger people, and the environmental movement must therefore not only be more inclusive of older people, but policy-making must also consider the needs of older people to build a climate resilient future.

Haq showed that, although age-related analyses of household consumption in the UK and France revealed older generations have the largest carbon footprint, some older people are more likely to take climate action than younger people.

Older people are also more likely to be victims of the impacts of extreme weather caused by climate change. This could be due to mobility difficulties, vulnerability to extreme heat, long-term impacts from flooding such as the spread of disease or heightened possibilities of mental illness in challenging circumstances.

Headshot of older man dressed in outdoor work clothes, wearing a hat, looking into the distance to the right of shot.

The relationship between older generations and climate change is complex. Affluent older people can have relatively high carbon footprints, but many older people recognise the importance of climate action and the dangers of climate change.

Photo: David Trood / Getty Images

Enabling older people to be part of the conversation on climate action can enable more inclusive decision-making, reflecting the needs of an ageing population. Climate change activism must harness the energy of older generations who already show themselves willing to be involved.

The chapter concluded with the following steps to more effectively engage older people on climate change issues:

  • Set aside ageist stereotypes.
  • Older people are not a homogeneous group: develop an understanding of the differences within the older generations.
  • Environmental groups should work with brands that older people already trust for more effective messaging.
  • Use peer-to-peer communication: older people are more likely to engage with ideas presented by people they know and trust.
  • Use positive messaging.
  • Use ‘frames’ such as thrift, intergenerational justice, legacy thinking and community work to present ideas.
  • Communicate through real-life examples that are familiar to an older audience.
  • Speak directly with older people, rather than through service providers.
  • Maximise participation by promoting debate and discussion rather than lecturing.
  • Engaging older people must be part of a whole-system change, including cross-sectoral policies which promote the transition to a low carbon economy.

SEI author

Gary Haq, Senior Research Assoicate at SEI
Gary Haq

Senior Research Associate

SEI York

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