The children are angry with us oldies over housing prices, and I feel their pain. But it’s the grandchildren I worry about. Imagine their anger if they understood what adults were doing to the planet. We won’t be alive in 40 or 50 years’ time when the wrath of climate change will be felt in force; our children will be elderly. But the grandchildren will be in the thick of life, with children of their own perhaps. It’s the grandchildren who’ll struggle in the teeth of malevolent climate changes. They’ll curse us for our inaction. When they were too young to defend their future, why didn’t we stop the climate change juggernaut?
This is a serious issue of intergenerational inequity. Being fairer to the younger generation by lightening their future tax burden is a theme of the government’s economic policy. Hence it seeks to raise the pension age to 70, and put limits on access to the part-pension. But the damage we adults are doing to the planet is the other intergenerational injustice. It barely rated a mention in the government’s recent Intergenerational Report.
I don’t have grandchildren but the whole family dotes on my nephew’s one-year-old son, a happy-go-lucky soul. It’s not necessary to have grandchildren to care about the future but focussing on young children we love helps make concrete a scenario that can feel distant and unreal. When he’s in his 50s and 60s what sort of Australia will he inhabit? Peter Youll, a member of ABC television’s Q&A audience last week, spoke for many when he addressed the panel which included the minister and shadow minister for the environment: “I’m a grandfather of three children under four years old. There’s a good chance they, unlike most of us here tonight, will be alive at the end of the century. There’s also a high probability that the earth’s climate will have become much less amenable for all forms of life by then unless we start now to make significant reductions in carbon emissions…..”
By 2070 if insufficient action is taken now, our grandchildren will live in a land of more heatwaves, droughts, fires, and floods. South-west WA will potentially experience 80 per cent more drought months, and Perth will suffer water scarcity. In north-west NSW it’s likely more than a third of the year will have temperatures above 35 degrees. The ACT will suffer more severe fire weather. In northern Australia floods will be more intense, and with it land slippage and road damage. In some places rising sea levels will lead to more frequent inundation of homes. It will be harder to get home insurance in many parts of the country. It will be harder to play sport in the intense heat. More people will die prematurely because of heatwaves. The Great Barrier Reef may be a memory, and up to 50 per cent of species will be extinct.
And if you listen to the pessimists, it could even be worse. The highly-regarded American climatologist, James Hansen, who first raised the issue of global warming in 1988, spoke on RN Breakfast this week of “incalculable” economic implications if we continue to travel the path we’re on. Without significant changes in the rate we’re burning fossil fuels, he predicted sea level rises within 50 years that would make coastal cities dysfunctional. “Some parts of the cities would still be sticking above the water but they would not be habitable,” he said.
Instead of feeling a particular responsibility to the young, it’s people over 55 who tend to be most sceptical about climate change. The Climate Institute’s latest survey of Australian’s attitudes found 46 per cent of people 55+ believed the seriousness of climate change was exaggerated compared to around 30 per cent of young adults and the middle-aged. While 60 per cent of young people were concerned about climate change, only 46 per cent of older Australians felt the same way.
This is not to deny the activism of many older people in environmental and climate change movements. I have written about them before. Perhaps others, at least those of pension age on tight incomes, fear the economic fall-out from putting an honest price on the burning of oil, coal and natural gas. Even when they were over-compensated by the Rudd/Gillard governments for the short-lived carbon tax, pensioners did not seem appreciative.
What we do now will make a difference; it will be too late by the time our grandchildren are grown. The government is setting new targets for greenhouse gas emissions to take to the UN climate conference in Paris in December where a new international agreement will be struck. Coalition MPs need to know their older constituents care passionately about the planet their grandchildren will inherit.
Keith Burrows, an older climate change activist from Melbourne told me: “As a generation, we’ve profited hugely from our exploitation of fossil fuels but it’s come at an enormous cost to future generations. Although we didn’t realise this back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we have known from the ‘80s and ‘90s. But we seem very reluctant to acknowledge our responsibility. I’d hope all of us ‘seniors’ would take up the cause of trying to take that responsibility seriously.”
Why are older people less concerned? Is climate change of concern to you? Please leave a comment.
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