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

Laura Tupou

From Waikato to Newshub - journalist Laura Tupou

As a teenager, University of Waikato alumna, Laura Tupou, had a passion for reading and…

Evaluating the morality of actions found to be culturally universal

Do people from distinct cultural groups use similar strategies when faced with moral judgements?

Disapproving of corruption doesn’t prevent corrupt behaviour

At a cost of around US$2.6 trillion per year, or 5% of global GDP, corruption…

New Zealand’s richest short story competition opens from 1 April

Entries have opened for the Sargeson Prize, New Zealand’s richest short-story competition. This year, first…

Psychologists urged to do more on climate change

Psychologists should be doing more to mitigate the health effects of climate change, according to…

Tahu Kukutai and Margaret Carr

Waikato researchers recognised as Royal Society Te Apārangi Fellows

Two University of Waikato Professors have been named Fellows to the Academy of the Royal…

Artemis Scholarship supports two worthy students

This year’s Artemis Foundation Scholarship has gone to two recipients; teaching student Lauren Dexter and…

Summer research projects inspire students

Whoever thinks research is a dull and lonely occupation has got it wrong, says psychology…

New study shows inequality in vaccine rollout for Māori and at risk communities

New Zealand’s rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has failed Māori and at-risk communities as health…

University of Waikato Fulbright Scholar to study how kava can be used to reduce PTSD

Kava could be used as an alternative to mainstream medicines in the treatment of Post-Traumatic…

Medalists

2021 Hillary Medalists named

Two alumni, Courtney Richmond and Tim Neild, have been named as the 2021 Hillary Medalists…

Liz Koh

Liz Koh’s mission is to help people plan financially

University of Waikato alumna, Liz Koh's, key mission is to help people to plan successfully…