The smoke alarm was the first sign we had a problem. By the time I got upstairs the smoke was billowing out of the bathroom. I reached for a fire extinguisher and sprayed its chemicals directly at the flames. Within a couple of minutes, the volunteer fire department was pulling into our driveway.
Anyone who has ever had a house fire, knows it’s a scary event. Imagine the scene if, instead of working together to put the fire out, the firefighters started arguing over which generation was most responsible for starting the fire in the first place! That’s what we risk with climate change.
But we have no time for generational squabbles. It’s time for all generations to work together for climate action and climate justice.
To be sure, Baby Boomers say they worry less about climate change than do other generations. In a Gallup study 56 percent of those ages 55 or older said they worry about global warming, compared to 70 percent of adults ages 18 to 34.
Less worry about the climate crisis may be part of a larger, developmental process for older adults, or it may reflect new stresses on younger generations. In a study by the American Psychological Association, Gen Z adults (46 percent) were the most likely generation to say that their mental health had worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to Baby Boomers (28 percent) and older adults (ages 75 and older, at 9 percent).
All Ages Somewhat Engaged
Higher levels of worry about climate correlate with higher levels of activism, but lower levels of worry or anxiety among older generations don’t necessarily indicate less engagement in the issue. Older generations are more likely to say they hear about global warming in the media than are younger generations. Perhaps these older individuals draw lessons from earlier challenges (e.g, the polio pandemic and its demise, the ozone layer depletion and its recovery) that reduce their worry. Those challenges were met, they may reason, and these challenges also will be met.
Generational differences also exist in understanding the root causes of climate change. Younger generations are more likely than older generations to attribute global warming to human activities. Survey data show that 69 percent of those ages 18 to 34, versus 64 percent of those ages 35 to 54 and only 51 percent of those ages 55 and older say human activities are the primary cause of global warming. But again, this isn’t necessarily due to resistance or denial.
The youngest generations were probably introduced to climate change in school. Most older generations have had to learn about it through the media. As with any complex topic, the media is not an ideal place for a comprehensive introduction to any topic, and climate change still gets scant attention there, although that is changing.
Considering generational views across party lines also complicates the narrative that Zoomers and Millennials have been left to clean up the mess of Boomers and are getting blame and shame instead of help. Older Democrats are more likely than younger Democrats, for example, to support policies to address climate change. In 2020, 93 percent of Democrats older than age 55 support setting strict limits on coal-fired power plants versus 88 percent of those younger than age 34. For Democrats, an increase in age may come with a greater understanding of the importance and value of government policy to effect change that benefits future generations.
Members of the older generations also are living climate memory. They remember President Nixon establishing the EPA. They have seen the direct benefits of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. This may be why there is more generational agreement on specific policy issues. For example, 60 percent of those ages 18 to 34 and those ages 55 and older agree that we should require 20 percent renewables as our energy source. There is even higher consensus on regulating CO2 as a pollutant.
‘Start talking about the climate crisis in your circles of influence.’
Now is the time for climate action, and Baby Boomers have a special responsibility to act. As the philosopher Rick Moody put it in 2017: “More so than any other age group, those who are old today have lived lives in which economic abundance has been based on carbon pollution. More than younger people, they—that is, we—bear disproportionate responsibility for the problem.”
Be the Change
But where to start? Get informed and start listening more carefully, share what you learn and demand action. A good first step is tuning in to those who have been working on the most pressing local, regional and national climate issues. One such resource is the Climate Advocacy Lab, which provides information and resources, including state-level data on climate topics.
Next, start talking about the climate crisis in your circles of influence. Data indicate that only 37 percent of Americans often discuss global warming with family members and friends. Baby Boomers can change this within their circles of influence—their family members, their friends, the folks they’ve worked with and known. Boomers also can invite intergenerational discussions with their children and grandchildren. Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says that if you’re going to do one thing about climate change: Talk about it!
Now is the perfect time to demand climate action from our elected officials.
At the federal level, President Biden’s Green Infrastructure bill will soon begin to make its way through the House and the Senate. Meanwhile, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, there are 604 climate bills under consideration in 43 states. At the federal and state levels, you can demand climate action from your elected officials.
The next time you are tempted by a generational remark, consider offering an invitation instead, such as “Tell me more about that. I care about you and your future and am ready to listen.”
An old adage says that if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. Combating the climate crisis and protecting future generations is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need each other if we’re going to go the distance.
Michael A. Smyer, PhD, is emeritus professor of Psychology at Bucknell University and the founder of Growing-Greener.org. He lives in Lewisburg, Pa. Jennifer R. Marlon, PhD, is a research scientist and lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and is a Public Voices on the Climate Crisis Fellow in New Haven, Ct.