Scholars, faculty, guests weigh intergenerational approaches to climate change

Maddie Aiken
October 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — "Fear." "Delay." "Death." "Disruption." "Losing paradise."

When asked to share the first words that came to mind when they thought of climate change, Penn State students and State College community members at the "Intergenerational Approaches for Promoting Climate Awareness and Action" panel painted a bleak picture for the Earth's future. 

However, the Sept. 24 event did not only focus on the negative impacts of climate change. It also highlighted potential solutions and efforts taken across the world to combat the issue. 

Roughly a dozen people gathered in Atherton Hall for the Schreyer Honors College Distinguished Honors Faculty Program event, moderated by Matthew Kaplan, a Penn State professor of intergenerational programs and aging. 

The event, the first in a series that will promote intergenerational conversations and actions, also featured panelists Louise Chawla, a University of Colorado Boulder professor emerita in environmental design, and Mick Smyer, a Bucknell University professor of psychology and founder of Graying Green, an organization that helps others create action plans on climate change. 

"When you talk about climate change and awareness issues, it's by definition, intergenerational," said Kaplan, who presented on "Intergenerational Perspectives on Environmental Education and Action" at the United Nations International Day of Families event in May.

"We all breathe the same air, we all drink the same water and we all dream of a healthier future, where we can have food that we trust and an ecosystem that is sustainable. If we all have a stake in that, and it behooves us all to work together, not just as separate pegs, what can we do together to amplify the reach of our individual actions?" asked Kaplan.

During the event at Schreyer, Kaplan, Chawla and Smyer each gave presentations about communicating and approaching issues around climate change. Attendees then had the opportunity to ask questions. 

Alexis Davison, a senior Scholar studying biochemistry and molecular biology, said she attended the event because she wants to be more proactive within the issue of climate change. The event's intergenerational aspects also interested her.

"There are a lot of young people promoting action, but we also know that we can't necessarily do everything that needs to be done ourselves," Davison said. "Since (everyone) has to live in the same world, the only way we can solve the problem on a global manner is to talk to each other."

Each panelist took a different approach to the loaded topic of climate change. Kaplan focused his talk on the steps that society needs to take to get people to care about climate change. By relating the effects of climate change to one's personal life and having conversations about the issue with an age-diverse group of people, Kaplan said, awareness and action will be promoted. 

Chawla discussed the coping mechanisms people use to deal with the heavy weight of climate change. The best mechanism, Chawla said, is meaning-focused coping, which allows an individual to process climate change in an emotionally healthy way and incentivizes them to do something to solve the issue. Meaning-focused coping leads to constructive hope, which can lead to collective action in groups of people. 

Smyer's presentation highlighted the efforts an individual can take to save the planet. Smyer encouraged attendees to make a "climate commitment," in which they promised to do a specific action to help the environment — such as take shorter showers or drive their cars less often. If those who made a commitment this way do not follow through, Smyer said, they are required to donate money to an organization with principles they do not support.

Anne Burgevin, a State College resident, pledged to talk to younger generations more about climate change after watching Smyer's presentation. She said the event as a whole helped her reframe the way she views climate change, as she will now strive to deal with the issue in a meaning-focused manner.

"I think what really felt rewarding to me (about the event) was feeling more educated about how to deal with the climate crisis and how to feel engaged with people around me in a way that feels productive — and not just worrying alone," Burgevin said. 

The day after the event, Kaplan and Chawla met with the staff of the Sustainability Institute at Penn State to continue the conversation around intergenerational learning and communication around environmental education and climate action. 

“Dr. Kaplan's intergenerational research and work touches on all aspects of a sustainable community — where and how we can live well, and well into the future,” said Ilona Ballreich, program manager of the Sustainability Community Collaborative (SCC) at the Sustainability Institute. “His presentation with Louise during their visit to the Institute emphasized how intergenerational concepts are aligned with program goals of the SCC. I look forward to working with Dr. Kaplan, faculty and their classes at Penn State to address related issues in the community through our engaged scholarship approach.”

Last Updated October 10, 2019