Young people misjudge older generations’ concern about climate crisis, notes ESRI research

People up in years ‘willing to play their part’ to mitigate global warming, according to study findings

Young people underestimate how worried older people are about climate change, according to new research, which finds that a better understanding of generational differences could lead to more effective collective action in addressing the consequences of a warming world.

Older generations have contributed the most to climate change but future generations are expected to face the worst of its consequences.

Activists from social movements often highlight this generational unfairness as a way to motivate young people to engage with environmental issues, but doing so may have unintended negative consequences, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) study.

Highlighting differences between groups can undermine motivation to take collective action with others to mitigate and adapt to climate change, it notes.


The authors devised an experimental test of whether thinking about the climate change conversation as an intergenerational issue affects young people’s climate motivations and their perceptions of older generations. They also tested whether cross-generational collaboration can be enhanced by highlighting similarities in concern about the environment.

In the experiment, three in four young people estimated older people’s concern to be lower than older people reported when asked themselves. Correcting this underestimation increased these young people’s belief that others will play their part to help mitigate climate change.

The study, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and carried out by Dr Shane Timmons, Ylva Andersson and Prof Pete Lunn, also tested the effect of highlighting “generational narratives” about climate change, which are commonly used by activists to motivate engagement with the issue.

A sample of 500 people aged 16 to 24 read a short text about climate change. The main information was the same for all participants, but for half the participants, selected at random, the text emphasised generational differences in the causes of climate change and exposure to its effects.

After reading the text, participants responded to questions about their perceptions and willingness to engage in climate action. The findings revealed generational narratives make young people more worried about climate change, “without any corresponding increase in willingness to engage in climate action”.

The study also tested the effects of providing young people with accurate information on how worried people above 40 years are. “Among those who had underestimated older people’s worry, seeing estimates from previous research boosted their belief that others, and in particular older people, are willing to play their part to mitigate climate change,” the paper finds. Research from behavioural economics suggests such beliefs are vital in encouraging climate action.

“Differences between generations in their contribution to climate change are undeniable,” said Dr Timmons of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. “But 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 co-operation necessary to mitigate and adapt it.”

Director of the EPA Office of Evidence and Assessment Dr Eimear Cotter added: “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.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times