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Climate Change: Older and Younger Activists Speak Out

How two generations talk about the future of the planet

By Nina Joung

Global climate change icons like Greta Thunberg have become the face of today’s climate crisis. But just as the realities of global warming have been known for hundreds of years, the climate fight did not start with Gen Z — nor does it only affect them.

climate activists
Activists then and now  |  Credit: Hot Mess PBS/Peril and Promise

For a new special edition of PBS Digital Studios’ “Hot Mess” climate change show in partnership with “Peril and Promise” (a public media initiative from WNET in New York City reporting on the human impact of climate change), my colleagues interviewed Geri Freedman and Jamie Margolin — two climate activists with a 50-year age gap between them.

The duo share the intergenerational story of the climate fight, what’s at stake for boomers and for Gen Z, and how the combined efforts of different generations have pushed the issue of climate change to where it is today.

Meet the Voices of Climate Action: From Boomer to Gen Z

Freedman, who is in her late 60s, is the national co-chair of Elders Climate Action, an organization committed to mobilizing older adults to raise their voice and take action on climate change. Her activism in the climate sphere started when she was a Northeastern University student in the 1970s, as co-chair of her school’s Earth Day committee.

“I really don't like how the question is framed often between like, ‘Oh, the young people are good, and the old people are bad.’"

Margolin, the 18-year-old founder of the youth-led climate organization Zero Hour and author of “Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It,” is one of the many young climate activists who got involved in climate activism before they were old enough to vote.

While Indigenous communities have been continuously fighting for their land and are on the forefront of the climate crisis, the modern climate movement is marked by the changes brought about in the 1960s and ‘70s. Those included The Clean Air Act of 1963, the first Earth Day in April 1970 and the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a few months later.

Despite these landmark decisions, the climate crisis has worsened in the decades that followed, producing a generation of young people like Margolin who consider climate change their biggest concern.

Although the climate crisis is something Margolin had been aware of for years, the 2016 election spurred her to become a climate leader. She felt it combined “the people who were being put in power” with “people who were actively causing this problem and making it worse.”

Margolin said in the digital episode: “And so I realized like, ‘Oh, we can't even trust our leaders to take action on this.’ And so that was really what pushed me to become a climate justice organizer, as opposed to just a girl who was worried about climate change.”

How Different Generations of Climate Activists Support One Another

Margolin takes issue with those who see climate change as only a young person’s concern.

She said in the episode: “I really don't like how the question is framed often between like, ‘Oh, the young people are good, and the old people are bad.’ When in reality, it's not about old versus young. It's about people in the forces who are destroying our planet and life on earth and people in the forces who are fighting for it.”

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One thing that becomes clear after hearing from younger and older climate activists is that this fight is about what’s best for our planet, not a battle of the generations.

Freedman believes her generation should support younger adults any way they can.

“I think the younger generations have a greater capacity for immediate kinds of communication that we are not as successful with because of that generational gap,” Freedman said. “We are happy to have the youth be up front and out there because they are the ones that now … it is about them.”

Climate Change: Not Just A Young Person Problem

Climate change isn’t just an issue that’s going to affect older Americans’ grandchildren decades from now. Today’s elders are vulnerable to the effects of climate change as well.

Heatwaves are becoming more dangerous and frequent due to climate change, with the oldest among the most vulnerable victims. Older people are also more susceptible to injury, illness or death as a result of a climate-related disaster such as a hurricane.

Freedman believes her generation isn’t just vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, it has the ability to spread the word during the upcoming election as well as financially.

“We can have impact both in ways that we vote and in ways that we spend our money in terms of not supporting corporations who are, you know, ravaging the earth,” Freedman said.

Margolin believes that’s especially important for older people to keep in mind as youth climate activists feel the heavy burden of the climate crisis on the shoulders of their generation.

“In reality, we're just doing the best we can and it's not our job to solve this issue,” Margolin said. “The youth will not save you. We will do the best that we can, but we all have to save ourselves. And frankly, the people in power, the people with money, the people with political power — they should be the ones leveraging all of that for action.”

Nina Joung is a social media and digital associate producer at "Peril and Promise" and "Chasing the Dream." Read More
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