Older adults: an untapped, renewable resource on climate action

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In Canberra, Australia, 78-year-old Bob Douglas is working to spread the SEE-Change centers movement. SEE stands for Social, Economic and Environmental, and the idea is tap into “gray power,” uniting older and younger generations to meet Australia’s challenges.

Meanwhile, Margaret Gordon, 69, works with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, an environmental justice organization in West Oakland, California.

Bob and Margaret represent a renewable resource on climate changes that policy makers and climate scientists frequently overlook: older adults.

The Paris climate talks offer a chance to remedy that oversight.

Consider the numbers. According to the United Nations, there are approximately one billion people over the age of 60 worldwide. That number is expected to double between now and 2050 and could reach three billion by the century’s end. The world’s population is aging as we try to cope with climate change. It is time to connect these two trends.

In the US, older people may need some convincing that climate change is a cause they can get behind, but they have a lot to offer: politically, they vote disproportionately more than any other age group; and they have time, talent and experience to turn their views into action.

Boomers and climate

When older adults are mentioned in climate change discussions, they are usually a focus of concern as one of the groups most vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events like heat waves, floods or droughts. This makes sense because of some older adults’ inability to cope with the stresses of extreme weather events. Equally important, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC), most Americans, including older adults, are unaware of the impact of extreme weather events on health.

At the same time, the majority of older adults in developed countries are the beneficiaries of a “longevity bonus.” For example, Americans who turn 65 this year will live, on average, another 18-20 years, with the bulk of those years in good health. This may explain in part why, according to the Ewing Marian Kauffman Foundation, there are more start-ups founded by people in their 50’s and 60’s than people in their 20’s.

It’s time to harness that longevity bonus in the service of climate action. At the local, state and national level, political leaders should engage older voters on climate issues, from measures needed to adapt to climate-related changes, such as responses to severe weather events, to support for clean power regulations from the EPA. At the same time, older adults can take the lead in educating themselves and in engaging family members and friends on how best to respond to the changes they are seeing in their own locales.

Are they ready for climate action? Maybe. The YPCCC data have divided Americans into “six Americas” based on their values, concern for climate change and willingness to take action. A majority of baby boomers and members of the World War II generation are in the most concerned categories: alarmed, concerned or cautious about climate change.

These results are similar to those in other countries. For example, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) surveyed Australians about their climate beliefs and actions. They found no age differences. Instead, value differences – not age differences – drove differences in views of climate change and its causes.

Ready to move?

Older people in the US do have some unique characteristics, though. The Pew Research Center released data earlier this month indicating that Americans lag the rest of the world in seeing climate change as a very serious problem (US: 45%; global average: 55%), in affirming that climate change is harming people now (US: 41%; global: 51%) and in being very concerned that climate change will hurt them personally (US: 30%; global: 40%).

The study also unveiled big generational differences of people’s views for who should take the lead in being responsible for climate action.

The Pew Research Center asked if rich countries should do more to address climate change than developing countries. Americans 50 and over were much less likely to endorse this strategy than were those aged 18-29 (34% v 51%). When Pew focused on specific strategies, generational differences still remained. For example, the majority of those 50 and over endorsed limiting greenhouse gas emissions as part of an overall international agreement, but they were less positive than were those ages 18-29 (60% v 85%).

Thus, although a majority of older adults are positively disposed to specific action steps, they are as a whole less amenable than younger people. That means climate scientists and policy makers need to reach out to this large and growing group, this renewable resource, to engage them more fully.

Focus on legacies

Taking advantage of the renewable resource of older adults will require several strategies: values-based social marketing, community-level projects and individual leadership and initiative. Developmentally, older adults are primed to think about their own legacies and future generations. Discussions of the effects of extreme events or planning with other generations for adaptation strategies are avenues likely to engage them.

At the same time, local efforts will be important for many audiences, including older adults, since the impacts of climate adaptation and mitigation may be readily seen in immediate ways such as changes in crops, changes in temperature or flooding patterns. The Australian Academy of Sciences suggests highlighting “strong spots” – that is, resilient communities that have done well in planning adaptation strategies, including approaches for protecting vulnerable populations.

Finally, as Bob Douglas and Margaret Gordon illustrate, older adults have the time, skill and passion to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of those who will follow after them. These are renewable resources too important to overlook.