Breadcrumbs

Older generations are increasingly concerned about climate change

7 July 2021

Taciano Milfont
Environmental psychology researcher, Dr Taciano Milfont

Opinion polls and news articles indicate climate change awareness and concern has increased globally, but is there a difference between what older and younger people believe?

University of Waikato environmental psychology researcher, Dr Taciano Milfont, was curious and set out to find the answer, leading a study investigating the attitudes of different generations of New Zealanders towards climate change.

In research just published in the prestigious Nature Communications journal, data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey (NZAVS) was analysed to investigate if climate change beliefs of individuals had decreased or increased over time.

More than 56,000 New Zealanders were divided into 12 five-year birth cohorts based on their year of birth (between 1936 to 1995).

They were asked the degree to which they agreed with two statements: that “climate change is real” and that “climate change is caused by humans” (or anthropogenic reasons).

Responses were tracked over a 10-year period, from 2009 to 2018.

While younger people started with greater concerns about climate change than older people, the research revealed that all birth cohorts increased in the strength of their beliefs that climate change was real and caused by humans, and at similar rates.

Over the 10-year period, there was a greater increase in belief about anthropogenic climate change (≈17%) than in belief in climate change reality (≈14%) across all age cohorts.

“This is perhaps due to the fact that belief levels for climate change reality were higher overall than belief levels for anthropogenic climate change, meaning there was not much room for an increase in climate reality belief.”

Dr Milfont says the findings provide some indication that climate communication is working, and that all generations are becoming much more aware of the issue, which offers a little bit of hope.

“The findings are positive in the sense they indicate people have become increasingly aware of the issue. It doesn’t necessarily mean that those concerns will translate into action, but hopefully they do. It gives some hope because to tackle climate change we need collective action across the generations.”

Dr Milfont is on the advisory board of the NZAVS, a 20-year longitudinal study which began in 2009. Led by Professor Chris Sibley from the University of Auckland, the NZAVS measures the changing social attitudes, personality and health outcomes of New Zealanders.

The climate change questions are “simple but critical questions”, says Dr Milfont, who is based in Te Kura Whatu Oho Mauri - School of Psychology at Waikato University’s Tauranga campus.

“One is about the reality of it - in the beginning some people thought climate change didn’t exist; now most people say it exists, but still a few don’t agree that it is caused by humans, or anthropogenic climate change.”

The trigger for his research was the 2019 school strikes for climate change, and the groundswell of young people stepping into the political arena.

It wasn’t only international climate change advocate Greta Thunberg. In New Zealand, young people were lobbying for change and being elected to local councils, including then 22-year-old Tamatha Paul in Wellington and 18-year-old Sophie Handford on the Kapiti Coast. In the 2020 election, then 23-year-old Chloe Swarbrick was elected MP for Auckland Central.

These young voices were expressing the frustration and sentiment of the climate change generation gap.

“Greta was quite vocal,” recalls Dr Milfont. “She said, ‘you guys are not going to be alive to experience the climate impacts yet to come, and our generation is going to suffer the consequences. You are putting the load on us to deal and solve this issue, but you have the power to do things now’.”

Dr Milfont says there is the opportunity to do further research into the psychology of climate change, including whether children are influential in sparking climate change action in their parents, and vice versa; and the extent to which climate communication should be tailored to distinct age groups within the population.


This research aligns with the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

Climate Action

Latest stories

Related stories

Eva Collins

Waikato researchers help launch circular economy initiatives for business

An $11 million University of Waikato-led research project to develop New Zealand’s circular economy has…

Pouring kava

New study on kava drink-driving shows impact on brain function

New research into the effect of drinking kava on driving has revealed it has a…

Wind turbine

Waikato to host Sustainability Summit in 2023

The University of Waikato has taken up the mantle of hosting the 4th Aotearoa New…

NMR Rototuna

New $1.5 million spectrometer boosts research capacity

A recent arrival at the University of Waikato will play a vital research role in…

Professor Bruce Clarkson

Waikato researchers receive massive boost for environmental projects

Researchers from the University of Waikato will now be able to advance projects to model…

Campaign image 2

World’s first Bachelor of Climate Change launched at University of Waikato

The world’s first Bachelor of Climate Change degree has been launched by the University of…

THE

Waikato research recognised for international impact in latest world rankings

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, released today placed the University of Waikato…

Rob McGowan

The healing power of plants

Rob McGowan QSM would like New Zealanders to be more connected to their land –…

 MARK TAYLOR/STUFF

Fish detector dogs helping to sniff out pest fish in Waikato and Bay of Plenty lakes

There’s some fishy business going on in the Schools of Science and Psychology at the…

Dr Nick Munn

Teaching online nets lecturer national award

A University of Waikato lecturer has been recognised as one of New Zealand’s top tertiary…

Hannah Robinson and Ashlee Cooper, two of the six Sparling Travel Award recipients

Six University of Waikato Environmental Science students receive Sparling Travel Award

Six masters and doctoral students have been given the opportunity to travel throughout New Zealand…

Isaac McIvor 2

3MT event puts PhD research centre-stage at Waikato

A speech on the development of ancestral Waikato pā using both a mātauranga Māori and…