Connecting older people across Finland, 71-year-old European Climate Pact Ambassador Anu Harkki is using the science behind the climate crisis to empower them to act.
My world: waking up to climate change
Anu worked all her life in the area of science and natural resources, leading research teams striving to make global food systems more sustainable and competitive. She was aware of climate change from the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until she was approaching retirement that she really became worried about the scale of the problem: “I had 4 grandchildren by then, who I spent a lot of time with. When you get older, more and more of your thoughts and wishes are connected to the next generation. I realised that the world will not be the same for my grandchildren.”
Anu’s growing family, along with increasing concern for the environment, inspired her to explore the world of climate activism. In 2015, she took a leap – across the Atlantic – to take part in a Climate Reality Project training course in Florida, presented by former US Vice President Al Gore. Having gained detailed knowledge of the science behind climate change, she knew that the facts could not be ignored: “I realised that climate change is going to be catastrophic. It helped me make the decision that I wanted to do something about it when I retired.”
She was ready to spread the word.
My action: empowering an older climate community
With the newfound freedom of retirement, Anu began giving climate talks and presentations at educational institutions and various workplaces in the Helsinki area, to audiences ranging from 50 people to several hundred. She uses scientific data to highlight how and why the atmosphere is warming, the effects it is having around the world, and the different solutions available to us to tackle it.
“I was mostly giving talks for professional associations, so most of the audience were older people. Through talking to them and showing them what’s going to happen, I realised that if all the grannies and grandads really knew about it, they would do something – they would try to protect their children’s and grandchildren’s future.”
This led Anu, together with 11 other women, to found the Activist Grannies. The first of their kind in Finland, the association is now a 6,575-strong community of concerned citizens who want to take climate action and connect with like-minded people. “We also have people who are in their 40s or 50s, who share our mindset and want to support the movement.” Members have made various lifestyle changes, including giving up red meat, reducing household energy consumption and buying more things second-hand. Discussing what practical action they can take and encouraging each other is a big part of the grannies’ ethos.
The group meets at Helsinki’s central library and invites experts to join them. The events have been a huge success. “Before the recent elections, we decided to organise a panel discussion with Finnish politicians. Important members of parliament joined and we had a great conversation about fossil fuels and Finnish conservation and biodiversity. The venue was for 100 attendees, but it was so full that people were sitting on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs!” These events provide a forum for the local community to express their concerns, and for older generations to make a valuable contribution to the political conversation. They also help hold politicians accountable for the climate-related promises made during the meetings.
The community encourages members to join local demonstrations, which have become increasingly popular with younger generations. For example, the Activist Grannies joined the Nature March in Helsinki on 18 March 2023, proving that the climate fight is truly intergenerational.
Anu has made some big changes to reduce her personal carbon footprint – including giving up red meat and dairy products nearly 3 decades ago. “One of the things I say to people is that the easiest change you can make is to what you eat. Just removing red meat and cow’s milk from your diet can reduce your carbon footprint dramatically.”
Anu and her husband also recently decided to downsize and move into an apartment. Since their children moved out long ago, they don’t need so much space, which in turn means they use less electricity. Consumption in general is another area where Anu has made a conscious effort to cut down. “Every time I decide to buy something other than food, I make myself think about it for a couple of weeks.”
Our planet: uniting generations to make a difference
In 2020, Anu became Finland’s first European Climate Pact Ambassador. She has since used her role to strengthen the Activist Grannies movement and connect with others across Europe. “Being an Ambassador opens doors and gives me credibility when I speak and give presentations.” Anu has taken part in Ambassador events online and in person, even joining European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans on stage in Brussels to share her story. She has also organised her own Peer Parliaments as part of the Climate Pact to generate discussions on ways to reduce your carbon footprint.
Key to Anu’s work is changing the narrative around the role of older people in the fight against climate change. Having noticed that young people often feel frustrated with older generations, perceiving them to be blocking the political change needed to tackle the climate crisis, Anu believes that working together and involving all of society is the only way we can truly have an impact.
The first way to do this is by connecting generations who typically live quite separate lives. The Activist Grannies invite school children to listen to presentations on climate change. They have also collaborated with younger activists on campaigns to plant 10,000 trees with the Finnish organisation 4H (which runs activities for children and young people), and to encourage people to celebrate Christmas sustainably.
The second part of the puzzle? Ensuring that older generations are heard. “When I look at the media, they are not talking to old people. Older people are not connected, and they are not seen as a group that could do something positive. They are seen as a cost. I think the media could do much more to show that everyone’s vote is important, no matter what generation they belong to.” Anu is proud of the fact that the Activist Grannies tackle this head on, by giving older people a space in which to learn and engage with climate action.
What words of wisdom does Anu have for young people who want to connect with older generations and take climate action together? “Talk to the older people in your life, show them the data, and let them know that we can all help win the fight against climate change – if we act now.” Why not take a European Climate Pact pledge to talk about it or join a group? Or become a Climate Pact Ambassador and connect with citizens and organisations from across generations, learn from one another and act on climate, together.