Climate Change: The Importance of Intergenerational Conversations

By Sola Mahoney

These days one of the activities that takes up a lot of my time as a semi-retiree is board meetings.

And anyone who sits on a board — or who has ever sat on a board — knows that board meetings mean board papers. Many board papers. Often pages and pages of board papers. And it was not too long ago that at one of our meetings here in The Gambia, a fellow board member drew our attention to the need for us to insist that all board papers should be printed double-sided. He was being environmentally conscious because by ensuring that all board papers were printed on both sides, we would be reducing the amount of paper used by 50% — and therefore saving more trees. And hats off to him for being so ‘green’ and so alive and sensitive to these important issues long before the rest of us.

But when I took him aside after the board meeting and engaged him further on this new-found environmental consciousness, he confessed that it was as a result of his grand-children. They happened to be based abroad and on one of his recent visits, they had been repeatedly challenging him and his generation for not being more attentive to the future of their grandchildren. And so with that badgering and berating echoing in his ear, he had been inspired to embark on this crusade to make it board policy that all our papers should be printed double-sided.

Now admittedly in this particular board we are still somewhat behind the curve environmentally. By now we should really have transitioned to having all our papers submitted and circulated electronically. But even though that does use less resources, frankly we’re just not quite there yet. Nevertheless the board member’s initiative was a welcome and commendable one. And I have to say that the fact that it had its origins in conversations between grandfather and grandchild resonated with me in a rather special way.

It struck me as an excellent example of the kind of inter-generational dialogue that we need to see and experience more of in our world today. And it was as if that conversation between grandfather and grandchild was a sign of things to come. At the recently concluded COP 26 meeting – a meeting billed as “the world’s last best hope to avoid the worst consequences of climate change” – we saw an example of generations of policymakers and climate activists engaged in what was essentially intergenerational dialogue and discussion at the global level.

Admirably — and justifiably in my view — a number of young climate activists (many in their teens) took centerstage and were given much more than just a symbolic and tokenistic voice. With great passion and conviction they presented their generation’s compelling perspective on the immense problem and challenge of climate change and what it means to them in terms of their own future.

Many of us older persons listened with rapt attention to the passionate speeches given by these young persons in a way that somehow replicated on a global scale the conversations that my fellow board member had been having with his grandchildren over the past few years. These days the younger generations of our world are becoming increasingly exercised about the policies and laws that we enact today because they will have a direct impact on their tomorrow – their future in which they are naturally so heavily invested. And so to my mind, the conference organizers and all the delegates who attended COP 26 are to be applauded for doing the right thing. They have ensured that the voices of the younger generations are heard, rather than being dismissed — as they might have been in the past on the grounds that they were too young and inexperienced to warrant a place at such an important global conference. 

And yet it is crucial that we remember that the future of planet earth is important to us all. It is so much more than just an issue for the millennials and generation Z. Some might argue that they have more years to live and therefore more to lose if we do not steer climate change away from the cliff edge.

But make no mistake: climate change with its devastating and far-reaching effects on communities and countries across the world does not discriminate on the basis of age. And the fact is that two-thirds of the world’s older people live in countries with a higher risk of climate-related disasters.  Furthermore, one could argue that older persons are often more severely impacted by the immediate effects of climate change largely because they no longer have the resilience and mobility of their younger years. So in any discussion about the effects of climate change the voices of older persons must also be heard.

Here in the Gambia we see this problem playing out every year. And whether the country is dealing with severe drought conditions on the one hand, or floods and landslides on the other, it is invariably our older persons – who are often frail and infirm – who suffer the most, particularly in the rural areas and among the urban poor. But when humanitarian and disaster-relief initiatives are undertaken, they tend to be forgotten and left behind. We have recent evidence of this from the relief efforts of different agencies in response to various disasters. Despite the best efforts of their hard-working and very committed staff, they often end up overlooking the older and frailer members of the community simply out of a lack of awareness of their predicament. 

Young climate activists like Greta Thurnburg and Vinisha Umashankar – the young voices of the intergenerational global conference at COP 26 — have awakened the world’s conscience to the need to pay urgent attention to safeguarding the planet’s future. But it is only through intergenerational dialogue that change can really happen – like the conversations between my fellow board member and his grandchildren which succeeded in making him aware of his responsibility towards the earth’s resources and by extension toward safeguarding his own grandchildren’s future.

We all have a moral obligation to play a similar role in raising the awareness of our politicians, policy makers, community leaders, and even of our very own families, so that we listen to the voices of every generation – the young and the old — as together we grapple with the challenging effects of climate change.

This blog was originally published in Foroyaa. 


Sola Mahoney

Sola Mahoney is a HelpAge International Trustee and member of Ageing with a Smile (Gambia). 
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