Bridging the Geezer-Young Person Gap to Drive Climate Change Solutions

Elders and youngers working together can meet the epic challenge of climate change. As Pope Francis writes, "The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development."
08/20/2015 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki, a leader in intergenerational action on climate change. Photo by Brendon Purdy.

After decades of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions and mounting impacts, we now need an "all hands on deck" cooperative approach to develop workable, long-term solutions to climate change. This presents an opportunity for elders and youngers to collaborate, to bridge what climate scientist and "father of global warming" James Hansen calls the "geezer-young person gap."

Pope Francis writes in his May 2015 encyclical letter "On Care for Our Common Home" that "Each community ... has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations...." "We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity," he observes. "Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us."

What Geezer-Young Person Gap?

With the Industrial Revolution, the number of generations at many western dinner tables shrank from three to two, with grandparents living elsewhere. The Baby Boom following World War II -- combined with an increase in average life expectancy -- has created growing numbers of retirees. Baby boomers began reaching age 65 in 2011 at the rate of 10,000 people every day in the U.S. Many elders feel cut off from the rest of western society, which considers them to be finished contributing and tends to exclude and think negatively of them.

Likewise, many young people are increasingly "siloed" - more often with their peers than at the family dinner table, only occasionally with grandparents, and communicating remotely over the internet. Some feel anxiety and dread about climate change.

What Elders and Youngers Bring

Elders constitute a huge, untapped resource -- a large number of people with relatively abundant assets. Compared with youngers, many elders have more free time, financial resources, experience, economic and political clout, and sense of connection to nature. They have witnessed environmental changes in ways youngers have not. Because they have observed repeated historical upheavals in their lifetime, many elders take a long view. Aware they may have few years left, elders often work with a sense of urgency and willingness to take bold action.

Youngers likewise constitute a huge, untapped resource. It is primarily they who will steer humanity onto a sustainable course. Youngers around the world -- fearing a long future of climate change impacts -- are taking action. Among other assets, they bring energy, idealism, eagerness to learn and grow, and proficiency with social media and the Internet. They provide "boots on the ground" at marches, rallies, and other events.

Elders and youngers both benefit from collaboration. Youngers appreciate that elders will listen to them, hear them, and back them up. With their encouragement, youngers may be more inclined to practice, test themselves, and lead. In past decades, elders created massive change in the environmental, civil rights, women's rights, and antiwar movements. Now elders groups around the world are taking action on climate change. Youngers can learn from their experiences. Elders benefit by gaining a sense of purpose and contribution, as well as the gratification that their knowledge and skills are valued by youngers. Elders are inspired by the commitment and curiosity of youngers and appreciate their assistance with social media tools and the Internet.

While elders and youngers attend events together -- for example, the People's Climate March last September and 350.org workshops -- several non-profit organizations have an explicit mission to bring adults and children together in intergenerational action on climate change.

The Norwegian Grandparents Climate Change Campaign (NGCC)

NGCC partners with youngers -- for example Miljøagentene The Eco-Agents, an environmental organization for Norwegian children -- to push for climate-protecting policies. Elders and youngers together write letters to government officials, speak to the Parliament, demonstrate in front of the Norwegian Parliament building, meet in schools, attend rallies and marches, and educate the public. NGCC and The Eco-Agents jointly produced a four-page pamphlet that they have distributed to members of Parliament and secondary school students and public libraries across Norway. NGCC and kindergarten children recently protested the climate-damaging draining and excavation of a peat bog located on public property.

NGCC, in cooperation with the Norwegian Climate Network, is organizing a train tour of elders and youngers from Oslo to Paris this December for the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21). Many organizations are invited to join, among them Nature and Youth. NGCC and youngers will also hold demonstrations in Norway during the COP21 negotiations.

Suzuki Elders

Suzuki Elders -- a voluntary association of about 100 elders in Canada working with and through the David Suzuki Foundation -- strives to "mentor, encourage, and support other elders and the younger generations in dialogue and action in the environment." The group's intergenerational activities in recent years have included an "Elders, Environment, and Youth Forum," with David Suzuki, his daughter, and his grandson presenting; participation in marches, rallies, conferences, and workshops; creation of an informational video; improvement of social media platforms; retreats on the theme "Elders and Youth -- Listening to Each Other"; and workshops on intergenerational storytelling.

Suzuki Elders coaches elders to work effectively with youngers. Their tips include going to where youngers are (e.g., public events and social media sites); connecting firmly with one or two who are eager to work with elders; scheduling events for times that work for youngers; providing refreshments; respecting youngers' social media prowess; supporting them without criticizing, directing, teaching, or holding expectations; listening; being patient; and understanding that youngers are busy with school and other activities.

No Planeta B

No Planeta B, a nonprofit organization of adults in Peru and the U.S., launched the Cut the Red Tape Project to involve students, parents, and schools in climate change action. Participating schools sign a declaration committing to at least five climate change-mitigation actions, such as going paperless and having meatless Mondays. So far, schools in in Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Curaçao, Guyana, Argentina, and the U.S. have signed on. Similarly, parents are invited to sign a declaration committing to at least five actions, such as reducing food waste and walking and bicycling more often. Participants are also circulating a petition calling for strong action at the COP21.

According to Executive Director Yoca Arditi-Rocha, No Planeta B will bring together delegations of students, teachers, and school administrators at conferences this fall. Three will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, and San Francisco in conjunction with Global Issues Network, and one will be held in Miami in conjunction with Climate Reality Project, headed by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Also planned are a video contest and rallies in schools in at least 10 countries. In December, No Planeta B plans to hold a one-day conference at COP21, which will be attended by delegations of students and adults from Peru, China, the U.S., and other countries. There, No Planeta B will present the declarations and petition to the U.N.

Coming Together

Our prospects for developing effective climate change solutions will improve if elders and youngers increase collaboration and find new ways to combine their talents, skills, and energy. On an international level, elders and youngers can attend COP21 together. On a national level, elders and youngers can participate in the upcoming Grandparents Climate Action Day in Washington, D.C. on September 9 and 10. On a local level, youngers and elders can connect -- through schools, non-profits, clubs, retirement communities, or senior centers -- to learn about climate change and press for solutions. Students and alums can continue pressuring colleges and universities to divest their fossil fuel stock holdings.

Elders and youngers working together can not only meet the epic challenge of climate change but also heal age divisions in western societies. As Pope Francis writes, "The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development."

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting sustainable practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information or sign up for updates on her website.