For decades, the wisdom of older generations was integral in the survival and success of communities as they learned the best ways to farm, find water and food. They taught us how to prepare for harsh winters, and how to endure brutal summers. Our livelihoods were intimately tied to the fluctuation and well-being of our land, and our fathers, mothers and grandparents wisdom was passed down as integral components of survival and success. Today, many people in the United States and elsewhere can get through their entire day with little more thought given to the weather than what to wear, or if they should perhaps bring an umbrella. Our growing detachment from the land may have contributed to a decreased ability to recognize subtle, yet possibly crucial environmental changes, and led us to rely less on the wisdom of our elders.

Additionally, in my experience, it seems less common to witness intergenerational family dwellings. Today, many grandparents maintain their own homes, enjoy retirement or choose to live in retirement villages. With less opportunity for continued intergenerational contact and communication,  what may we be missing?

Woman with canned vegetables
Woman with canned vegetables

These symptoms of our increased detachment from the land in the historical sense could be a contributing factor in the growing sentiment of apathy toward climate change expressed by younger generations. I have witnessed a fatigue expressed by my peers when dealing with the constant bad news cycle. We feel overwhelmed with topics we have little power to affect any change in. This “information fatigue” is particularly evident when dealing with macro environmental issues- particularly climate change. Helplessness (I’m only one person), dispair (We have gone too far, or we will never get back what we’ve lost) and apathy (Nothing I can do matters anyway) are common expressions highlighting the impotence some feel in affecting change on these issues.

My current research investigates the various barriers to effective environmental communication. The sentiments of helplessness, despair,  and apathy were commonly expressed by participants when regarding images depicting drought, sea-level rise, receding glaciers, and human or animal suffering. However, one image generated a unique, and interesting response. That of farmer Herb Hill, 85 years old from Crescent, Oklahoma, who is photographed checking out his newly installed solar panels.

Figure 9
Herb Hill and his solar panels

While I am still in the process of analysis, one significant trend has emerged. This image prompted almost all participants to express a feeling of hopefulness, with many making statements along the lines of; if this man can make this change, why can’t I? It seems this image of an older generation leading by example, may trigger something powerful in our decision-making process, despite the relative separation we currently experience.

Researchers from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences Sifan Hu and Jin Chen recently tackled the effect inter-generational discussions on local climate issues has on younger generations “perceptions and willingness to mitigate climate change”. Their study paired adolescents engaged in an education program discussing local environmental issues with seniors (age 60+) in their communities. The curriculum developed by Hu and Chen centered around two key tenets: place-based education and intergenerational learning. They define intergenerational learning as the “purposeful exchange of resources and learning among older and younger generations for individual and social benefits” (Chen & Hu, 2016 pg. 427).

Gloria Ip Tung, 14, China. ‘Governments be heroes! Make greenhouse gases zero. Show citizens the way, Let’s create a better day! It’ll never be too late to free our planet’

Twelve rural townships were identified as good candidates. In each town, one primary school was selected by convenience sampling. From there, two groups of children in each were selected to participate (Chen & Hu, 2016 pg. 428). The children in each school were separated into two groups. The lecture group received a lesson on local impacts of climate change including increased precipitation, greater temperature fluctuations and increased extreme weather events (Chen & Hu, 2016 pg. 428). This multimedia lecture consisted of questions, images, and video clips. The communication group received the same lecture and curriculum but were provided and additional opportunity to engage in conversation with grandparents and community elders the day after the lecture (Chen & Hu, 2016 pg. 429).

Prior to the lecture, all participants took a “pre-test” survey to establish the initial perceptions of the students. For the communication group, a second “post-test” survey was completed three days after the lecture and conversation. The goal of the study was to try and identify any significant difference in perception based on the lecture alone, or the lecture and conversation.

The results of their study indicate greater importance is applied to locally relevant climatological issues, ones in which the individuals may have direct experience with. Some of the participants identified detailed climate changes and increased variation in their local weather. While both the lecture and communication group showed a change in perception after the lesson, the communication groups concern regarding climate change increased in a manner that led the researchers to identify an increase in “mitigation intention”, the participants likelihood of modifying behavior to reduce personal impact (Chen & Hu, 2016 pg. 435).

It may be that a locally relevant climate change message, one in which the focus is not on a far off place, but on impacts to a specific community, may be an important consideration when trying to improve the efficacy of a message. Additionally, the importance of hearing the message from someone of an older generation may elevate the validity of the message. I would be interested in learning if this study would have similar results if it were conducted in rural towns in the United States. While there may be different challenges when dealing with rural Oklahoma farmers, I believe if the message could be presented without the use of divisive verbiage. One day, individuals like Herb Hill may represent the norm rather than an anomaly. Our future depends on our reliance upon all resources available to us, including the advice and wisdom of our grandparents.


Hu, S., & Chen, J. (2016). Place-based inter-generational communication on local climate improves adolescents’ perceptions and willingness to mitigate climate change. Climatic Change, 138(3-4), 425-438.


2 thoughts on “The role of inter-generational relationships in climate change communication

  1. This is great, Sonia! I love your opening paragraph – indeed, our modernity highly mediates our daily relationship with nature. You might like this quote: “We’re only now learning that there’s yet another, concealed danger in indiscriminately altering the environment: by inadvertently severing connectedness and thus dulling some of our own awareness, we can begin systematically ignoring our surroundings without quite realizing that our alertness has faltered; we can damage our natural systems; we can put our own safety and health in peril.” Tony Hiss, “Encountering the Countryside”, The Experience of Place (1990)

    You might like an article I just got published on Native American farmer perceptions of climate variability, part of my dissertation work in southwestern Oklahoma. I’ll attach it to our Canvas page…


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