An aging population is bad news for the promotion of climate friendly policies, research from BI shows.

While US president Donald Trump (age 74) argues on Twitter that “global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”, Greta Thunberg (age 17) is the face of a global “school climate strike” movement urging immediate environmental action.

New research by Benny Geys, Tom-Reiel Heggedal and Rune Sørensen at BI Norwegian Business School shows that beyond the age of 45 growing older makes people put less emphasis on protecting the environment. Within rapidly ageing Western societies, this may make future policies less rather than more environmentally friendly. This would happen despite recent generations’ higher support for protecting the environment.

Age and life stage matters

Investments in environmental protection are generally expensive to currently living generations. We all have to contribute to investments being made today. Yet, the benefits of these investments only arise ‘tomorrow’ – or, more likely, many years into the future. The elderly – due to their shorter remaining life spans – profit less from these future benefits. This suggests an important life-cycle effect whereby individuals put different levels of emphasis on protecting the environment depending on their age and stage in life.

The older, the less engaged

Despite groups of grandparents becoming climate activists, a large part of the aging population is less concerned about fighting environmental degradation. Building on both Norwegian and German survey data, research from BI shows that growing older has a negative effect on expressed preferences for environmental protection – particularly among the elderly. Ageing is predicted to reduce the environmental preferences of 72-year olds on average by 11% relative to 60-year olds.

Declining interest also among future seniors

These findings are important since differences between the young and the old in terms of their concerns about global warming have been understood as a generational phenomenon. If this were correct, pro-environmental attitudes would become more prevalent when the current elderly pass away. The new findings suggest, however, that support for saving the environment declines over the life-cycle. Especially in rapidly aging Western societies this may have a considerable impact on future environmental policies, particularly since older people are more eager voters compared to younger ones.

Reference:

Geys, B., Heggedal, T., & Sørensen, R. (2020). Popular Support for Environmental Protection: A Life-Cycle Perspective. British Journal of Political Science, 1-8. doi:10.1017/S0007123419000607

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