Climate Change’s Most Pressing Obstacle Is Getting Our Older Generation To Care

Dennis Chen

Top image by Zachary Tang.

Sunday’s National Day Rally featured climate change for the first time in recent history. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dedicated a full quarter of his English speech—22 out of 82 minutes—to the issue.

While there was a whole lot on adapting to climate change in the form of swanky new coastline upgrades, there was very little on how to mitigate it. Many Singaporeans agree that the two minutes he spent discussing mitigation were not enough.


Many of us wanted PM Lee to address concrete steps or initiatives that Singaporeans could undertake in order to reduce waste and emissions. But there were only the same old general gestures, and the singular example of youth-led program Repair Kopitiam spearheaded by Farah Sanwari.

“This is the grand challenge for their generation,” PM Lee concluded, positioning the youth as the ones who will ultimately solve climate change.

It’s odd that the focus seems to be on cure, rather than prevention. Maybe it’s defeatism, maybe it’s pragmatism. But sure, leave it to the idealistic youth to think of mitigation measures. We have to do whatever we can do contain the catastrophic consequences of our climate crisis.

While we’re picking brains, here’s an idea: heavily reduce the burning of incense paper during the 7th month. Charge a higher price for papers or some form of tax to discourage—but not completely eliminate—the practice.

Of course, this is a bullshit idea. Eliminating incense paper burning isn’t actually going to solve anything—we made it up in jest during morning musings over coffee. But it illustrates the generational gap in our attitudes towards the environmental crisis: that the youth are ready to cut down on practices that the older generation is resistant to.

If we are to address climate change, sacrifices have to be made. And this concept of sacrifice is where we see a fundamental distinction between the different generations.

The TL;DR of climate change is that it’s caused by extensive man-made carbon emissions. 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, so individual actions alone won’t do much to curb global warming. Hence, many environmental activists are calling for the government to slash greenhouse gas emissions, which will require pivoting to green energy and a decrease in global production. Wide systemic change has to take place to meaningfully address climate change.

But while companies are the main driving force of emissions, consumers are complicit in enjoying the bounty of capitalism. If production decreases, consumption will have to follow in kind.

The youth understand that sacrifice is required to mitigate climate change. We need to consume less: less plastics, less meat, less energy—all changes that lead to less convenience. Transitioning to a zero waste lifestyle will not be easy, considering how many of us are content with modern comforts.

But the older generations aren’t willing to do so because they see it as a problem that doesn’t concern them. If it’s not affecting the livelihood of their twilight years, why bother?

Birth rates are infamously below replacement and the median age is steadily increasing. With elections around the corner, the government can’t ignore our elders given our own silver tsunami. We still have to address climate change, and we can’t just wait for stubborn attitudes to die out. So we have to change them.

Thus, the NDR segment on climate change was structured to appeal to the older generation.


Firstly, there was the strong relationship drawn between climate change and defense. The rally focused on drawing parallels between the SAF and these future measures to combat rising sea levels, with the climate crisis an adversary to wage war against. Using militaristic language has been one such strategy to appeal to a more traditional, conservative older generation.

Secondly, there was an appeal to the parental instinct, with PM Lee claiming that future generations will rue the ones currently in power if no action is taken.

Thirdly, he anchored climate change in material terms. The rally amusingly linked rising sea levels to possible increases in property prices, as though the housing market would be a major concern when the globe’s on fire.

And finally, the promise of new infrastructure—always welcome, as long as you don’t tear down the old buildings. Its physical facade is a good way to show return on interest.

Marina Barrage is first and foremost seen as a public space with public utility. PM Lee had to jokingly clarify that its main function isn’t for families to fly kites on because many don’t understand that it’s a dam meant for water storage and flood control. Our new coastal defences become a much easier sell when it’s something new all Singaporeans can enjoy.

Despite all this, the elderly still don’t care. Many tuned out during the NDR the moment climate change was mentioned.

Because fundamentally, the cavalier framing of climate change as a 50-100 year problem makes it very easy for them to shut off. Hearing those numbers, climate change becomes this abstract notion that the older generation won’t even live to see. Instead of addressing the core reason for their apathy, the government provided another reason for our elders to remain further entrenched in it.

But they should care, because many estimates show that we have much less time than that. We’re already feeling the consequences right now. It’s not about being alarmist, but the government can and should have taken a more urgent tone. In this regard, the climate change segment on NDR has failed because its target demographic remains unmoved on the issue.

We can’t wait until it’s politically viable or until the next election cycle before we do something. To that end, our government should take the plunge now on mitigation and commit to the heavy regulation of emissions, production and consumption. Climate change has to be treated as the existential crisis it is, and that requires hard solutions. We can’t always ‘not be ready’.

After all, I’ve heard that it’s much easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.


I’m not saying the older generation are a bunch of spoiled brats. Our elders are intimately familiar with sacrifice on their own terms—that’s how we have the Singapore of today. Thing is, if they believe climate change is not their problem, they’ll perceive solutions addressing it as taking away from them.

But no one’s taking away anything from anyone. Our elders, our youth, and our government, are not in opposition because as much as it sucks to say, we’re all going to have to endure this together. Even as they’re aging, our elderly are still part of this world and we can’t move forward without them.

So what can we do to engage our older generation?

We can explain the consequences of climate change in a way that they can understand and that affects them. Climate change is a ‘bread and butter’ issue that affects our daily lives, our elders just don’t see it yet. It’s on our leaders and community to connect the dots and show them how this issue affects their livelihood.

Spell out what PM Lee was reluctant to make specific—that climate change will make Singapore more crowded. There will be less land, and potentially more climate refugees. Being packed to Hong Kong levels of population density is bad news to anyone watching.

Exaggerate the possibility of our elders having their 85th birthday at a flooded void deck, never really able to leave their home unless in a sampan. Forced relocation is a worse prospect than delayed access to CPF considering how one’s home might be the only assets of middle class families.

Inform them that prices will inevitably increase and that it’s in our best interest to cut down on consumption early. PM Lee expanded on how climate change will cause food shortages. Huge tracts of land will no longer be able to sustain agriculture due to unpredictable weather and floods. If we don’t take action we won’t just be broke, we’ll be starving as well.

When all is said and done, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Our youth have shown that they’re ready, and they’re already making a difference.

It’s on our elders to step up, join us, and take responsibility.


Do you think your parents, grandparents, and everyone above the age of 45 should do more about climate change? Tell us how you’d convince them at community@ricemedia.co.

The post Climate Change’s Most Pressing Obstacle Is Getting Our Older Generation To Care appeared first on RICE.