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Global Ideas

Protecting the climate across generations

Mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren - sometimes they are literally generations apart when it comes to what they think and do. Is that the same when it comes to climate change?

There’s nothing like a computer to underline the yawning gap between generations when it comes to dealing with new information and challenges. Imagine a grandmother and her granddaughter sitting in front of a computer. The child is easily able to navigate the laptop in front of her, while the grandmother (assuming she isn’t computer-savvy) often takes much longer. Technology is just one of many fields where grandparents and grandchildren can find themselves miles apart.

But when it comes to climate change, those lines become blurred, experts say. So does age play a role at all in climate awareness and activism?

“Between the 1970s and today, there was a dramatic realization that future generations won’t necessarily be better off than the current one,” says Markus Vogt, Chair of Christian Social Ethics at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. But that realization doesn’t necessarily mean that older generations are more active in protecting the climate.

Climate attitudes and actual behavior at odds

"There is no statistical correlation between age and awareness when it comes to climate change,” says Anita Engels, a professor of sociology at the University of Hamburg. Together with her team, Engels studied the level of skepticism Germans have towards climate change, and other associations that go along with it.

According to her data, 65 percent of Germans believe climate change is a “very serious problem,” while only between six and nine percent could be classified as climate skeptics. Those skeptics also tended to support fossil fuels over renewable energy sources.

There was, however, no statistical correlation between educational level and climate skepticism.

“In the USA, people who feel that they are well informed often tend to be skeptical towards climate change, but it’s just the opposite in Germany. Here, people who say they know quite a bit about the topic tend to believe that climate change truly exists,” says Engels.

A man buys baked goods (Foto: Sven Simon)

Many people know it’s a poor climate decision to drive to the corner bakery, but they still do it

But awareness doesn’t always lead to climate-friendly behavior. Research also shows that there is often a gap between the attitude and the action that is taken. “These are topics that are pretty well established in the media – so people generally know how to best answer a question that they’re asked,” says Dietmar Rost, a sociologist who studies climate culture at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen, Germany.

“They know to say that they don’t use their cars for short distances or fly within Germany. But that’s not reflected in their actions. Then it turns to ‘but other people fly all the time.’”

Older folks at an advantage?

In every generation, there are three types, says Rost: those who are aware of climate change and take an active role in fighting it, those who pay no attention to their effect on the climate because they don’t know or don’t care, and those who protect the climate for other reasons.

“A lot of older people for example live economically and modestly – and in a climate-friendly way. But often that has nothing to do with climate change, they were just raised that way,” says Rost.

“Younger people have developed an entirely different lifestyle but there isn’t any clear trend there of more climate activism. Cars, for example, continue to lose their importance as a status symbol and that’s good for the climate. But on the other hand, long-distance travel is increasingly popular even though it’s damaging to our climate.”

Lilies of the valley peek out of a snow covering (Foto: Fotolia)

Changing weather often becomes blurred in our memories, making it more difficult to clearly remember changing climate patterns

Rost’s research team in Essen is leading a project called “Shifting Baselines,” where they study how the perception of change depends upon differing points of reference – which is especially important when it comes to climate change. We can only begin to behave in a climate-friendly way when we are aware of the problem, and for that, says Rost, it helps to have older points of reference, too.

“I would cautiously say that older people perhaps have a slight advantage because they can look back further and have more time for that kind of reflection. There is more chance to really perceive change especially in the climate,” says Rost.

“A young family with small children tends to live more in the present and doesn’t reflect as much on the past.”

That is one case, then, where the grandmother has an advantage over her grandchild.