In a recent study published in Communications Earth & Environment, researchers examined the generational differences across the population of the United Kingdom (UK) in risk perceptions, emotions, and beliefs about climate change and climate engagement.
Research indicates that as a result of growing up with early exposure to the concept of climate change, the younger generation worldwide is more concerned about the consequences of climate change than the older generations.
Literature on the subject suggests that the concerns and emotions about climate change are often beyond manageable levels and are taking a toll on the mental health of the younger generation.
The contrast in the levels of concern about climate change between the younger and older generation is also supported by the prominent media presence of young climate change activists.
However, the findings on the size and nature of the gaps in concerns and beliefs about climate change have been mixed. While some studies have reported that the younger generation is generally more concerned about the environment and experience anger, worry, and guilt regarding climate change, individuals from the older generation are more likely to have a skeptical approach to climate change.
In contrast, other studies have reported negligible differences between generations in the concerns, commitments, or values about the environment, indicating methodological differences across studies in the outcome measures used to assess concerns, beliefs, and risk perceptions about climate change.
About the study
In the present study, the researchers used data from three nationally-representative cross-sectional surveys conducted each year between 2020 and 2022 in the UK to examine the generational differences in various aspects of climate engagement. The questions of these surveys assessed the beliefs about the urgency, temporal proximity, and causes of climate change and evaluated the worries, perceived threats and impacts, and other emotions about the subject across the representative population.
The surveys were conducted across groups categorized using the theory of generations, which states that generations are formed based on shared experiences about circumstances and historical and social events. Groups based on these generational labels enabled the researchers to evaluate the insights from various age cohorts, with the assumption that common opinions and values are formed from shared experiences.
Six major generations were examined in the study — the post-war generation, spanning 1928 to 1945; two halves of the baby boomer generation, spanning 1946–1954 and 1955–1964, respectively; Generation X between 1965 to 1980; and millennials and Generation Z, comprising individuals born between 1981 and 1996, and born after 1996, respectively.
The questions in the survey had a response scale of five points, with higher scores indicating a stronger belief in and emotions regarding the temporal proximity, urgency, anthropogenic nature, and higher perceptions of risk related to climate change.
Beliefs about climate change indicate an emotional state that is a result of an effective evaluation of the impacts and risks of climate change and might or might not be related to reality. Perceptions of risk can be categorized based on perceived likelihood into personal worry, generalized concern, and seriousness.
The findings reported that generational differences with regard to climate change were found mostly in areas of emotional engagement, while the differences in perception were lower when the cognitive beliefs about the causes and impacts of climate change were compared across generations. The younger generation has stronger negative feelings of guilt, fear, and outrage about climate change than the older generation.
Furthermore, between 2020 and 2021–2022, the differences across generations in the perceived impacts and beliefs about climate change seemed to have narrowed, indicating a changing trend in the understanding of climate change. Surprisingly, a significant proportion of the older generation believed that the impacts of climate change were already being felt.
The levels of risk perceptions and worries about climate change were significantly higher among the younger generation than the older one. The results indicated that age did not seem relevant to the skepticism about climate change. Still, they did play a significant role in influencing the concerns and threat perceptions about climate change, indicating a stronger emotional climate engagement among the younger generation.
Overall, the findings suggested that the threat and risk perceptions, emotions, and beliefs about climate change were higher among the younger generation than the older one, but the gap is more consistent and larger for climate change-related emotions rather than beliefs.
Furthermore, over the years, with an increasing understanding about the impacts of climate change, the overall gap in cognition between the generations about climate change is narrowing, and the differences are more in the areas of emotions rather than beliefs about climate change and its anthropogenic nature.