WE’RE often told it’s the young, not the old who care about the future. The youth are what drive us to recognise that our house is on fire and we need to act. But I’ve never really bought that line. I’ve always thought there are people in all generations who care. James Hansen, the climate scientist whose grave predictions led him to start warning the world in the late 1980s, is now aged 80 and still shouting. Too much talk about one generation showing more concern seems like a stoking of generational division.
The climate crisis is no place for an identity politics based culture war and shouldn’t be treated as such. It’s an imminent threat to human lives and the health of the planet. Yet sometimes it gets pushed through that cultural packaging machine and turned into something that is about young versus the old.
That’s perhaps not surprising. We know it’s the young that will live with this world created by our emissions. Many children, and older people already are. A recent Unicef report declared that a billion children across the globe were “extremely high risk” of the impacts of climate change.
However, a recent survey by Upfield, a plant-based food producer, caught my eye. It revealed a statistic that may be surprising to some. In a survey of 2,000 people, half of those aged 18 to 34 said they believed climate control could wait until 2025.
Meanwhile, more than half of over-55s thought it needed to happen now, as did 44 per cent of Generation X (20 per cent of Generation X, by the way, also thought it could wait till 2025).
Such results echoed a similar Opinium survey from last year which found that Boomers were more likely to act in support of green issues than Millennials or Generation Z.
I could speculate over the reasons for this. The Boomer feeling of urgency, that perception of immediacy, may relate to that sense of the years that we have already let slip past. We, my generation as well as the Boomers, have seen how easy it is for three years to become 30 and for no difference to have been made. We may feel we have seen the change. Guilt could be another reason. We know this happened on our watch.
I’m also curious that such surveys give very little mention my own generation, Generation X. I had to go back to Upfield for the statistics on this group since they weren’t included in the original press release.
This is perplexing since it’s Generation X-ers who are at most likely to be in positions of power, give or take a Biden or a Modi, and able to push and sign off the necessary changes. Surely what they think counts?
The people who care in one generation have often inherited that from another. But instead we focus on the young versus old. Even back when I started covering the climate strikes at the start of 2019, I was struck by how much easier it was to get the story of young climate strikers into the paper than many other climate stories. I’m not denying the power of climate strike, or how inspiring Thunberg is, but it felt as if this was the story that the world wanted.
The narrative that the young are the drivers of climate concern is one that was as much pushed by older people as the young. We wanted something that would actually move us – and the image of a girl giving up her school certainly did that.
Meanwhile, I’m optimistic that attitudes towards climate are shifting quickly. Climate denialism is nearly gone in the UK. The big issue is how to make the necessary changes, and with urgency.
This is not to say there is no generational difference at all in how we might approach the climate crisis. But the differences are not a war. The differences potentially might help us come together best as a team to help us fight the actual problem.
Yet we remain obsessed with division – particularly any division that is associated with identity. On climate we cannot afford it. We are all in this boat together. We need to solve it together. Young or old, we are the potential ancestors of tomorrow.