Boomers, Elders Take on Climate Change Sceptics

Older people know a lot about “living lightly on this earth”. They’ve been there, done that. It’s called being frugal. Before plastic bags, they used paper ones. Before disposable nappies, they used cloth. Before air conditioning went domestic, they’d put on an extra jumper. Their children, today’s baby boomers, grew up knowing to turn the lights off, the taps off, and the heater down. They took bottles back to the shop, and no-one drove them to school. They walked or rode their bikes. So why do many people today think the environment is a youth issue? For example that “young voters are the natural core of support for the Greens.”  Is it because it’s older people who tend to listen to the climate-denying shock jocks and vote in bigger numbers for Conservative politicians who think climate change is “crap”?  It’s easy to portray older people as more worried about their superannuation than global warming. But is it true?

Growing numbers of older people, it turns out, are getting passionately involved in defending the earth from climate change skeptics. Some are baby boomers who’ve always been activists. Some have a science background. Others are just desperately worried about the legacy they’ll leave future generations. For some, the birth of a grandchild ignites concern. “The connection you feel to grandchildren is so powerful and deep that you start to worry more about the future of the earth,” said Carolyn Ingvarson, convenor of a group called Lighter Footprints.

Carolyn, who’s 70 and a former biology teacher, started the environmental group seven years ago after she saw Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth about global warming. Lighter Footprints is based in Melbourne’s poshest, most conservative suburbs. It now has 700 members and while they may not be manning the barricades, they’re hugely effective letter writers and emailers. Members take a “tough line in a polite way,” she says. They hold big forums three times a year, and during the last Federal election assembled candidates Anna Burke (Lab), Josh Frydenberg (Lib) and Janet Rice (Greens) to address the hundreds who turned up. As well Lighter Footprints provides information about how individuals can make a difference in their own lives. “Without the over-55s,” said Carolyn, “we wouldn’t exist.”

For Carolyn climate change is not a left/right issue. “Why wouldn’t conservatives want to save the planet?” Many members of Lighter Footprints would be swinging voters or a natural fit with conservatives, she says. But as things stand they feel “forced to vote Green or in some cases Labor.” And when it comes to their grandchildren, they can break down in tears. “They get desperately upset thinking we can do something about global warming now but soon it will hit a tipping point,” Carolyn told me. “And then our grandchildren will be caught. They’ll look back at us and say ‘what the f… were you doing?’”

Green Sages is another group built around climate change action that’s starting to take off. It’s specifically for older people from across Victoria. It’s an initiative of the Council on The Ageing (COTA) Victoria, a peak body that represents the state’s older citizens. Keith Burrows 71, a physics teacher who still does relief teaching, is a Green Sages foundation member. “We realize COTA’s main role is looking after the interests of the elderly,” he said. “Most of us think our greatest interest is the legacy we leave to the children and grandchildren. As a group, elderly people have benefited from decades of cheap energy and are responsible for the CO2 in the atmosphere. We feel it’s our place to do something about reversing the damage and caring about our young people.”

Green Sages aims to give older people the chance to work alongside younger people on climate change action, to mentor and to learn from them. Keith says, “This shouldn’t be a political issue, it’s a scientific one.” He gives talks about climate change to organizations such as the University of the Third Age and he’s involved in other groups such as Beyond Zero Emissions, a body that promotes renewable energy. What he’s noticed in these groups is that the activists are either young or over 45. “There’s a gap in the middle,” he said. “What’s missing is 35-45 year-olds; they’re too busy running kids around or making money to pay off big mortgages.”

Yet some older people are alienated by the language of climate change, and how some elements of the media portray the issue, says John Lawrence 59, who helped start Green Sages. “They feel a so-called ‘green agenda’ threatens their economic wellbeing and way of life, especially if they’re on limited incomes,” he said. “And also climate change looks so overwhelming and long term they can’t psychologically manage it.” Getting more older people on board may require an even stronger appeal to the idea of legacy: that older people have a duty to the next generations to protect the earth. And older people may need to be re-assured their voice counts on this issue.

At a time when the government now claims to accept the science but its actions suggest otherwise, and when the ALP is licking its wounds, the initiative moves to citizens young and old to show climate change is still the great moral, economic and social challenge of our time.

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Adele Horin

Adele Horin

Adele Marilyn Horin was an Australian journalist. She retired in 2012 as a columnist and journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald. A prolific and polarising writer on social issues, she was described as "the paper's resident feminist.