Generational Divide Over Climate Action Isn't Real, Study Finds

This is not an intergenerational war; it's a class war.

Ken Levenson
I see a lot of older people at the Extinction Rebellion protests.

Stephanie Keith/ Getty Images

The most controversial post I ever wrote for the Mother Nature Network—now mercifully archived but on the Wayback Machine here—was a discussion of Bruce Gibney's book "A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America" in which he blamed the Baby Boomer generation for just about everything wrong in the world, including the climate crisis. Gibney wrote: "Unlike acid rain, which had immediate impacts on Boomers’ quality of life and was therefore swiftly addressed, climate change is a problem whose consequences will fall most heavily on other generations, so far too little has been done."

But a new study concludes that, at least in the United Kingdom, perhaps the baby boomer generation is not so terrible, noting "climate change definitely isn’t something that only younger generations are concerned about – older people are just as likely as the young to support big changes to how we live in order to protect the environment."

Prepared by Bobby Duffy of The Policy Institute of Kings College London and the New Scientist Magazine, the researchers interviewed 2050 adults over 16 years old in August 2021. The results show that the baby boomers actually care more about climate change and biodiversity loss than GenX, Millenials, or GenZ. While some say that baby boomers are resistant to change, they are right in the middle between Gen Z and Gen X. This is a critical finding; as Duffy, author of a new book on the attitudes of different generations notes in the press release:

“There is virtually no difference in views between generations on the importance of climate action, and all say they are willing to make big sacrifices to achieve this. What’s more, older people are actually less likely than the young to feel that it’s pointless to act in environmentally conscious ways because it won’t make a difference. Parents and grandparents care deeply about the legacy they’re leaving for their children and grandchildren – not just their house or jewellery, but the state of the planet. If we want a greener future, we need to act together, uniting the generations, rather than trying to drive an imagined wedge between them.”

Many will disagree with this finding. I picked up on the theme in the Treehugger post "Jargon Watch: Predatory Delay" discussing Alex Steffen's term for "a way of keeping things the way they are for the people who are benefiting now, at the expense of the next and future generations." Duffy's study does find baby boomers are much more likely to believe that economic growth is more important than environmental concerns than GenZ is; their retirement accounts come first.

blocking the bridge
Boomer activists closing the Waterloo Bridge. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images

But it is also true that whenever I go to a protest regarding the climate, it is well stocked with older people, many even older than the baby boomers. It is a generation that has been protesting since the 1960s and the bomb, and boycotting since the days of California grapes and South African oranges.

The biggest difference between the younger and the older groups surveyed was in response to the statement: "There is no point in changing my behavior to tackle climate change because it won't make any difference anyway." Baby boomers are far less fatalistic;  "33% of Gen Z and 32% of Millennials in the UK say there’s no point changing their behavior because it won’t make a difference anyway, compared with 22% of Gen X and 19% of Baby Boomers."

This was a lesson I learned when writing my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," that it is far easier to contemplate changes that matter if you have money, flexibility, and own your own home. Because this is a question of wealth, not age, and it happens that many older people are wealthier.

Oxfam distribution of emissions

OXFAM

Gen Z and millennials are attuned to the fact that it is the richer people who do the flying and driving big cars, and that the richest 10% of the world's population emit almost half of the emissions. They know they are not going to have the wealth or property that the baby boomers had. If you look at the older men who run the Senate or the big companies, it is the fact that they are richer, not older, that is driving their actions.

Duffy's study provides a valuable service in reinforcing a point we have made before that we are not in an intergenerational war, but a class war and a culture war. This requires different tactics. I wrote that "In some ways, we would be better off if this was the last gasp of boomers trashing the place. In an intergenerational war, time is on the side of the young. Class wars are harder."

View Article Sources
  1. Duffy, Bobby"Who Cares About Climate Change?" Kings College London, 2021.