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Feb 14, 2012

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Crikey intern Freya Cole writes: Rather than trying to convince climate sceptics with science, should we just wait for them to die off?

That’s the argument raised in a recent Grist article, where writer David Roberts argues that “cohort replacement” — that, is people dying and being replaced by a new, more educated generation — may be the best move to combat climate deniers:

 “A great many people believe that one of the primary barriers to action on climate change is the existence of a cadre of ‘climate deniers’ — people who refuse to accept the now-overwhelming scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change …

“I don’t think the climate deniers will ever change their minds. What will happen is that they will, to put it bluntly, die off. We might wish it otherwise, but I fear that change on climate — real change, non-linear change — will not happen until the generational cohort in which climate denialism is concentrated begins passing into the sweet beyond.”

The problem with that strategy, says Australian Youth Climate Coalition national director Ellen Sandell, is death is too far away: “Unfortunately, we don’t have that long to wait, all the science is saying that we have a narrow opportunity in which to act. Action needs to happen before they die because the longer we wait the harder it gets to make a difference.”

But she admits it is frustrating. “It is irresponsible and disheartening to see older people not thinking of the future,” Sandell told Crikey.

“Younger people don’t have any financial vested interest in climate change, and seeing older people denying it annoys young people because they are putting profits and lifestyle in front of the future.”

The demographics of the climate change movement are clear. “At a majority of the anti-climate tax rallies the general age was middle-aged-plus. But if you looked at the rallies GetUp! and other similar groups put on in favour of putting a tax on carbon, there was 40 times the amount of people and a majority were young,” Sandell said.

Conservative white older men are the most likely group to deny the threat of climate change. It’s partly because they feel threatened, writes Roberts at Grist:

“Older white men are a privileged group. They saw their fathers occupy a position of unquestioned normative dominance. And yet history is passing them by; America is becoming more diverse, more urban, and more socially liberal. White men are in the process of losing their position of privilege.”

Mathew Wright, executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions and the 2010 winner of the federal environment minister’s Young Environmentalist of the Year, agrees with Roberts’s hypothesis.

“I think there are possibilities to why successful people come to the floor during public debate and deny global warming,” Wright told Crikey. “It’s their legacy. They look back at their life and see they provided economical development to the world and back at that time, they may or may not have thought pollution had anything to do with it.

“Then along comes this retrospective story and that is all bad news and dangerous climate change. That rewrites history for them and this consequently could change their happiness and retirement.”

He says people don’t like to revisit the past. “For example, 20 years ago they might have decided that solar is very expensive and doesn’t work very well,” Wright noted. “They might have trouble revisiting that because they are relying on the decisions that they made initially, 20 years ago. But now, things are moving faster than they ever have before, and the fact that solar didn’t work 20 years ago but works now is a problem that for some people is hard to face and admit to.”

According to Wright, the answer to solve the generational divide is in good communication and accepting that a few decades ago people had a different understanding of pollution and the environment.

“It’s about communicating fairly to these people,” he says. “There’s no reason to have scorn on them because 20 years ago they didn’t know any better.”

But the 2011 Young Environmentalist of the Year, Lindsay Soutar, doesn’t think the issue is entirely generational. “The real issue stopping more ambitious climate action is the well resourced, hugely powerful interests like the mining giants and energy utilities, who want to maintain the status quo,” he told Crikey.

“These bodies — and their affiliated think tanks, media commentators and so on — work to spread fear and uncertainty both in our community, and threaten any governments perceived to make moves against their interests. While those bodies maintain their grip on our democratic institutions, we will struggle to take action at the scale necessary.”

Anna Rose, co-founder of the Youth Climate Coalition, strongly contends it is possible to change the minds of climate sceptics and deniers, no matter their age.

“It’s definitely possible to change people’s minds about climate science,” she says. “I know many young people in the AYCC who have changed the minds of their parents, relatives and bosses on the issue. It’s reasonable to have questions about the science, and they deserve answers.”

Rose is used to persuading climate sceptics. Her book, to be released in April, is called Madlands: The journey to change the mind of a climate sceptic. As the blurb states: “Anna Rose goes on a journey around the world to get to the truth, with former Liberal Party powerbroker Nick Minchin in tow. She’s on a mission: to see if she can change the mind of one sceptic and with him the views of a nation confused about the science behind the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.”

Rose, like the other young activists, says Australia simply cannot wait for cohort replacement. “The problem with giving up on solving climate change until the next generation has taken over is the urgency of the problem we face.

“We don’t have the luxury of time being on our side.It’s up to Australians who understand climate science to change the hearts and minds of those who aren’t yet convinced — before it’s too late.”

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