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Young people tend to underestimate how worried older people are about climate change - study

Three quarters of young people estimated older people’s concern about climate change to be lower than what older people themselves reported.

YOUNG PEOPLE TEND to underestimate how worried older people are about climate change, a new study has found.

Research by the Economic Social and Research Institute (ESRI), funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested young people’s perceptions of how older people feel about climate change and whether or not focusing on generational differences motivates people to take climate action.

The research found that around three quarters of young people estimated older people’s concern about climate change to be lower than what older people themselves reported when they were asked.

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Dr Eimear Cotter, Director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment, said in a statement that “responding to the climate crises requires collective action across all segments of society”.

“This research provides valuable insights to help inform the design of effective climate communications strategies that motivate different generational groups to act collectively”. 

The research

A sample of 500 young people aged 16 to 24 years old were asked to read a short text about climate change. 

Half were selected at random to read a version that included narratives about different generations, such as that “older generations did not do enough to stop it [climate change]” and future generations were more likely to experience the worst effects.

The other half read the same text but with the generational narratives excluded.

All participants were then asked to respond to questions about how worried they are about climate change, as well as to what extent they believe older people and other young people are worried.

“After rating how worried they perceived older people to be, half the participants were randomised to see the actual responses of older people to the question, based on data previously collected in Ireland. Participants then answered further questions, including about their belief in collective action for climate change mitigation (i.e., that others will play their part) and their intentions to engage in pro-environmental behaviour in the future,” the research explains. 

Among the participants, the young people who read the generational narrative text reported being more worried about climate change than the second ground, and also reported higher levels of perceived worried among their friends or other young people.

However, there was no difference in perceptions about older people’s worry between the two groups. Both groups, regardless of which text they read, underestimated how worried older people are about climate change.

The study found that focusing on generational differences in contributions to climate change and exposure to its consequences can increase worry among young people but does not motivate them to take action.

Instead, correcting misperceptions among young people about older people’s level of worry may be of benefit.

Dr Shane Timmons of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit said that “differences between generations in their contribution to climate change are undeniable”, but that “focusing on these differences may contribute to existing misperceptions about the beliefs of others”.

“Instead, communications about climate change that highlight commonalities between subgroups of the population may help to reduce eco-anxiety and foster the kind of cooperation necessary to mitigate and adapt it.”

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