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Engaging older people with climate change – a largely forgotten but key demographic

By Briony Latter on July 26, 2022

Couple enjoying the seaside with Burbo Bank windarm in the distance in Crosby, UK

There has been little research into how to engage older people with climate change, despite their key role when it comes to climate action. In this guest blog, our former Research Assistant Briony Latter shares highlights from her work to understand how to better engage this demographic. Her recently published research is based on Climate Outreach’s narrative workshop methodology.

Why older people?

Older people have largely been forgotten about in climate change communication. Engagement and action on climate change is needed across society, which means we need to understand where engagement with particular groups is lacking or where there is little knowledge about how best to do so. How older populations engage with climate change is a crucial gap in knowledge.

Older people have a growing and important role in society. The older generation have significant voting power which can impact our political landscape. Also, the UK’s population is ageing. This means it is important to consider not only how climate change will impact older people (such as the health impacts of heatwaves), but also how they engage with climate change and the active role they could have in addressing it.

While older people feature across the Britain Talks Climate segments, and more prominently in some than others – for example Backbone Conservatives – there has been little research focused specifically on this group. My research set out to explore possible ways to better engage with older people about climate change and add much needed insight to this area. In this blog, I outline some of the key findings from my recently published research about climate change communication with older people in England.

What happened in the research?

Based on Climate Outreach’s narrative workshop methodology, a series of short narratives were tested in focus groups across England. These were based on different concepts including health, local, nature, altruism, autonomy and social justice. The narratives aimed to see what language, values and framing might resonate, or not, with older people. As well as drawing out how participants responded to the narratives, the analysis also identified key themes that arose during the discussions.

I tested these narratives in three focus groups in different areas of England (Yorkshire, the Midlands, London), with a mix of rural and urban participants, aiming to have a range of different people taking part.

Narratives that worked well

Four key themes emerged:

    • Consideration and responsibility: almost every participant talked about the importance of consideration for others and taking responsibility for climate change. The narrative that focused on altruism was one of the most positively received. The phrases “we should be considerate of the impact of climate change on others” and “right thing to do” were particularly popular.
    • Community: having a sense of community, for example working together and spending time with other people locally were seen as important.
    • International outlook: participants were also concerned about climate change on a wider scale, with concern for others and cooperation at an international level a key topic of discussion. This was reflected in participants’ responses to the narrative which focused on international aspects of climate change, which was the most positively endorsed narrative overall.
    • Power: the international narrative included messaging about influencing governments and large organisations to work internationally. The phrase “pressure our governments” resonated strongly with participants who felt that governments and organisations have vital power and the ability to take action to address climate change.

The narrative that focused on nature was also viewed positively, particularly the phrases “humans have a connection to nature” and “safeguard it”. The positive responses to protecting nature and an international focus are reflected in recent Britain Talks Climate research in the run up to COP26 and the net zero, fairness and climate politics research.

Narratives that didn’t work well

The narratives which drew on more insular framing or an individual outlook tended to get negative reactions from participants – for example, national security or narratives that were too narrowly focused on the wellbeing of their family without broader consideration of others. Participants felt that some of the language was “so self-regarding” and that only thinking about climate change on a national (rather than international) level was “just not a very good approach”.

Although participants agreed that “we have a responsibility to take action”, there were disagreements about who ‘we’ refers to and the level of action needed from different groups of people across the world. This was reflected in responses to the social justice narrative, which caused disagreements about responsibility and climate change impacts. Some participants thought that everyone has a responsibility to address climate change, regardless of the extent to which they contributed to it. Also, some disagreed with the phrase “climate change will hit the poorest the hardest” and instead felt that climate change would impact most people regardless of their wealth.

The health narrative also had mixed responses. Some participants felt that tackling climate change on its own would not be enough to address wider health issues such as clean air and water. Prior research has found that talking about health in a broad way as “creating a healthier society” resonates across Britain. In the focus groups, some participants felt it was a generalisation to connect specific health impacts (increased temperatures, flooding, air pollution) to climate change. However, given the recent record breaking heatwave in the UK, this may no longer be the case.

What next?

This research has provided some starting points for what may work when engaging with older people about climate change and there is a gradually increasing awareness of the importance of this topic. For example, this has been highlighted recently in an article in The Conversation, through the #OlderAndGreener campaign and in a chapter about older people in the book Diversity and Inclusion in Environmentalism. Recent research looking at generational differences has also explored the topic of climate change and explored the question of whether older generations care about climate change as much as younger ones.

However, there is still a way to go and progress needs to be made to better include older people in the climate conversation. More research is needed to understand older people in terms of climate change engagement, as well as how age may intersect with other demographics when it comes to climate change. There are also implications for advocacy and engagement. Not only do we need more research, but we need to better equip those working on climate change public engagement to make sure that older people are not overlooked.

Read more: full research article.

2 responses to Engaging older people with climate change – a largely forgotten but key demographic

  1. Mrs Clare J Shorter says: says:

    Did you discuss actions? What actions are older people willing to take? This is what we need to know about.

    • Briony replied: says:

      Hi Clare, thanks for your question and I agree actions are important! The focus groups looked at different ways to talk about climate change, though broad actions were included in the narratives that participants discussed. So it definitely came up in conversation including who is responsible for taking action, but not at the level of what specific actions older people are willing to take.

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By Briony Latter

Briony was a Research Assistant at Climate Outreach for six months in 2021 as part of her PhD at the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). She holds an MA in Climate Change: History, Culture, Society where she researched climate change communication and engagement with the older generation in England.

Briony comes from a creative background, having originally trained in Art & Design (Foundation) and Photography & Video. She worked in photography and retouching before moving into communications. She is now in the final stages of her PhD exploring universities and climate change, and also works as a research consultant, mainly on public engagement including projects with a creative focus. Outside of work, Briony can usually be found reading or spending time in the mountains fell running and hiking.

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