Climate Change: an age old problem?

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Less than 50% of those over 55 say they are ‘very likely to take action’ to try to mitigate climate change.

Climate change and our ageing population are usually presented as separate issues, but closer attention to their interaction could yield positive change. Not only are older people are major contributors to environmental damage, they also represent an increasing proportion of our population.

In 2013 17.2% of the UK population was over 65 and this is projected to rise to over 23% by the middle of the century[1]. Climate change is often seen as a problem for younger generations, but if our ageing population is to be environmentally sustainable it is essential that we encourage individuals of all ages to engage with environmental issues. Indeed, baby boomers are responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than any other age group, emitting 13.52 tonnes of carbon per year compared to just 11.07 tonnes by those under 30[2].

Climate change perceptions

In 2012 The Stockholm Environment Institute surveyed 1028 people over 55 in Australia, Canada, Sweden, USA and UK on their knowledge and perception of environmental issues, as well any action they took to prevent climate change.

59 percent of those questioned said they thought environmental problems would be worse by 2050[3]. Yet, while more than 70 percent of Australians and Canadians stated that they were ‘very likely to take action’ to try to mitigate climate change, less than 50 percent of the British respondents gave the same reply.

The reasons given for this ranged from a lack of money to poor health or mobility. However, the most cited reason was a lack of support or incentives from government, with close to 50 percent of respondents saying they wanted guidance on how to respond to green issues.

Changing behaviour

Promoting environmental action among the over 50s is a key strategy that could be used to have a significant impact on our carbon footprint. Policy makers need to find ways in which to engage older groups and to encourage changes in their behaviour.

The Green Alliance, in partnership with Natural England, Age Concern and Help the Aged, brought older people together with green experts to discuss how they could be encouraged to become more eco-friendly. Their 2009 report, by the the Greener and Wiser Taskforce, highlighted the need to educate and engage older people on green issues.

They proposed appointing ‘a high profile spokesperson for older people and the environment’ and age proofing environmental communication Strategies[4]. The report also suggested recruiting and training ‘a core of retired people to act as environmental advisors in their community’ and doing more to help older people access public transport.

Change is slow to come

Five years on, few of the Green Alliance’s recommendations have been implemented.

Stereotypes of older generations being stuck in their ways need to change. They are aware of environmental issues, and they are interested in environmental issues. Just 20% of those surveyed quoted a lack of knowledge as a barrier to action3 and over 80% said they were ‘concerned about the impacts of climate change’[5]. In fact, as a group particularly vulnerable to the dangers of flooding, heatwaves and air pollution, older people have a vested interest in working to prevent environmental damage.

We cannot afford not to have everyone on board in the fight against climate change; more needs to be done to support older people in their efforts to help the environment.

Helen Creighton

[1] Source: Eurostat
[2] Haq, G., Minx, J., Whitelegg, J., Owen, A. (2007) Greening the greys: climate change and the over 50s
[3] Brown, B., Gutman, G., Haq, G., & Snell, C. (2013) Global Ageing and Environmental Change
[4] Scott, F., & Willis, R., (2009) Greener and Wiser, an Older People’s Manifesto on the Environment
[5] Brown, B., Gutman, G., Haq, G., & Snell, C. (2013) Global Ageing and Environmental Change


One thought on “Climate Change: an age old problem?

  1. Valerie said:

    From my own experience I can see that 60 somethings are less keen on recycling which surprises me as I thought retired people would have more time to fit it into their daily routine.
    But perhaps older people are more cynical.
    Several oldun’s have told me they don’t bother recycling because it all ends up in landfill either here or in the third world.

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