Analysis: a new project reveals striking differences depending on age and gender around how to tackle climate change in Ireland

By Brenda McNally, TCD

According to a recent survey, there has been a dramatic reduction in public online conversations about the climate worldwide. This is despite the fact that record-breaking temperatures and Covid-19 are both warnings that humanity must urgently address its relationship with nature and tackle the climate crisis.

While the down grading of climate change as an issue of public concern and discussion is understandable in the context of a global pandemic, it is a worrying development. This is because research on public engagement with climate change increasingly argues that we need to make it a topic of everyday conversation. We need a lot more public talk about climate change if we are to mobilise the citizen engagement required to move to an environmentally sustainable society. But how do we start everyday conversations about complex issues like climate change?

A new EPA-funded project on communicating climate action analysed gender and age differences in citizens’ knowledge of climate actions in Ireland with this challenge in mind. The study carried out 10 focus group discussions (with 30 women and 20 men) between March and May in 2019 to develop more progressive public dialogue.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ One News in July 2020, EPA calls for full implementation of Climate Action Plan

The findings show that women were the most vocal on the need for consumer change and individual responsibility. They were also frustrated with these 'small acts’ and wanted to see more large-scale changes by government and business.

On the generational side, young people care about the social injustices of climate change in addition to environmental impacts and want to build a better future for all now. Participants over 65, were equally concerned about climate change, but were less likely to view it as their problem and focussed more on the need to educate school children about nature. However, older generations also have a lot to contribute in terms of sharing their experience of living more sustainably and questioning consumer culture.

Despite these differences, a surprising finding is the commonalities in views across groups. Most notably, the majority of participants expressed doubts that politicians would ‘do the right thing’ and put pressure on business or vested interests with respect to large-scale climate action. This widespread scepticism about meaningful government and business action on climate change is a major problem as it contributes to negative sentiment about the possibility of tackling climate change in Ireland.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, a report on the 2017 Citizens Assembly on climate change

Very few participants had heard about the Citizens' Assembly on Climate Leadership or were aware of subsequent government initiatives. They had, however, heard of Ireland’s status as a climate laggard and were extremely concerned about this characterisation of climate action in Ireland.

Participants also shared similar gaps in knowledge about the different levels of climate action and the social justice dimensions of decarbonisation, such as the need for a Just Transition. These gaps represent important opportunities for progressive public conversation about the social aspects of climate action. They highlight the need to increase social learning about carbon reduction activities as part of climate change education and that education is needed across all levels of society.

The findings on how age and gender influence views are equally instructive as they shed light on what we can learn from each other. Environmental research has established gender differences in perceptions and responses to environmental problems. For example, studies have shown that women are more likely to act on their environmental values and engage in pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling and are more likely to express concern and worry about environmental problems compared to men.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

RTÉ Brainstorm podcast on how we can remove cars from cities to combat environmental and commuter congestion 

Similar results were found in this study, as more women reported engaging in general pro-environmental behaviours such as avoiding single use plastics, recycling and concern about litter than specific carbon reduction actions. Male participants were more likely to discuss technological solutions, especially renewable energy alternatives such as electric vehicles and retrofitting. Interestingly, women were more likely to express optimism about their involvement with pro-environmental activities compared to men, who were generally pessimistic about the costs of technological solutions.

But the biggest socio-demographic difference is generational. The study found that younger participants have a markedly different view on climate change. They talk about the climate emergency as an issue that directly affects them now and feel a huge sense of personal loss when talking about climate change. As a result, they are also most likely to express anger about the lack of action, especially at the government level.

It's important that public conversations about climate action are grounded in the understanding that we are all in this together

Young people are also much more likely to talk about climate justice when asked about climate actions. This is because they understand climate change as an inter-related challenge involving social exclusion and inequality as well as environmental protection rather than only protecting or saving the planet. The findings show that younger participants have a broad grasp of the complexity of the climate emergency and the need for systemic and structural change to ensure that an environmentally sustainable future is fair for all.

Despite these differences, the study shows we can learn a lot from each other. Perhaps the most important finding is the value of creating spaces for inter-generational conversations as this represents an inclusive approach to building knowledge, changing practices and expectations about a low carbon society. As with our collective response to Covid 19, it’s important that education and public conversations about climate action are grounded in the understanding that we are all in this together.

Dr Brenda McNally is a Research Fellow with the Trinity Centre for the Environment at TCD and an Ireland-Fulbright Scholar 2019-20


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ