Born into uncertainty and filled with youthful conviction, young people have formed the vanguard in climate change protests and other forms of direct action.
But how wide is the gulf of sentiment between younger generations and older people who have not always been aware of climate change as an existential threat?
The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey, based at the University of Auckland, asks New Zealanders for their opinions on a plethora of topics, including climate change.
Many of the 42,000 participants have engaged in multiple waves of the longitudinal survey – giving the University of Auckland-based research team a long-term view of how individuals’ attitudes have changed over time.
Participants are asked to rate their support for a series of statements, on a scale of one to seven (seven is the strongest agreement).
On this chart, each horizontal line represents a year in which the survey was taken.
Coloured dots represent age groups, from Gen Z teens born after 2001, right up to people who are now in their 90s. The darker the colour, the younger the age group.
In the early waves of the survey, older generations expressed only mild agreement that climate change exists.
At every survey wave, though, young people have expressed the strongest belief. Today’s teenagers, who only participated in the most recent wave, expressed the strongest support possible: a uniform score of 7 across all 14 to 19-year-olds surveyed.
Taciano Milfont, an environmental psychology researcher at the University of Waikato, has been exploring the survey’s climate change data for an upcoming paper. Even though the age gap has remained, there is a persistent increase in support at all age levels, he says. “We argue that’s positive if we want to take action — we need action across the board.”
Compared to belief in climate change, belief that humans are its cause is notably lower.
Early on, the oldest age brackets even expressed mild disagreement with this statement.
However, every age bracket under 35 averaged a score of 6 or higher in the latest survey wave.
All age groups now agree, on average, that climate change is caused by humans. But young people believe this the most strongly.
Does belief in climate change translate into concern, though? The survey added a third statement from 2014 onwards, seeking to find this out.
In 2014, the various age groups expressed mild to moderate support.
Support has strengthened more gradually than the other two statements, with the youngest age brackets out in front of the pack.
For this statement there are no dots on the ‘disagree’ side of the chart — people have agreed they are concerned no matter their age.
The age-related pattern of support we see in New Zealand is mirrored in global research. The United Nations Development Programme recently released the results of The People’s Climate Vote, a digital survey of 1.2 million people across 50 countries.
As in NZ, global belief in the climate emergency is lowest among older people and strongest among children and teenagers.
Here’s how the generations stack up.
New Zealand was not included in the survey but this chart shows the gulf in opinion between the youngest and oldest age groups in 15 of our neighbours and trading partners, including Australia.
About the data
The New Zealand data was provided by the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey, based at the University of Auckland. The Peoples’ Climate Vote data was collected and published by the UNDP and available on its website.
Data/reporting: Kate Newton
Design and graphics: Alex Lim
Editor: Eloise Gibson
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