The Climate Crisis: What's Aging Got to Do With It?


The challenge of the climate crisis can be summed up in ten words: It’s real. It’s us. It’s bad. Experts agree. There’s hope (Maibach, 2011). This article reviews implications of the climate crisis for older adults and those who work with them. This special issue highlights the role professional organizations like ASA need to play in responding to the climate crisis and ways gerontologists and climate activists can use their talents to ensure older adults are not only victims of climate change but also leaders of climate action. Each of us has a responsibility to become a climate literate professional in this era of climate crisis.

Key Words:

climate crisis, climate activists, older adults

I was nervous. I had just given my first talk about the intersection of aging and the climate crisis, and I was awaiting the response of the world-class climate scientist and his research group. He paused and said “Huh.” “This is not going well,” I thought.

Over the next few months, this scenario repeated itself as I made presentations to groups of climate scientists and repeatedly got an initial one-word response: “Huh.” Each time, however, the researchers or climate activists then went on to explore the possible implications of the interaction of two global patterns—population aging and the climate crisis.

I came to realize that “huh” is a scientist’s way of saying, “That’s not crazy. I just never thought about it.” And that’s the point. Many climate scientists, gerontologists, and activists have never thought about aging and climate change.

To be sure, researchers and clinicians have warned of older adults’ vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change (U.S. Global Research Program, 2018; Frumkin, Fried, & Moody, 2012; Klinenberg, 2015), but few have taken a more comprehensive view. While this issue of Generations Journal is necessarily limited in scope, it allows us to carry out a useful thought experiment: Imagine that older adults are not only victims of climate change but also potential leaders of climate action. What might that look like?

Climate Change: A Summary in Ten Words

More than a decade ago, a leading climate communicator, Ed Maibach, summarized the challenge of the climate crisis in ten words: It’s real. It’s us. It’s bad. Experts agree. There’s hope (Maibach, 2011). His summary remains accurate.

It’s real. Recent national and international reports document the significant impacts that climate change is already having on people across the globe (IPCC, 2021, 2022a). The U.S. Global Change Research Program, a collaboration of 13 federal agencies, summarized the situation in the United States in its Fourth National Climate Assessment:

“[t]he impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country. More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities. Future climate change is expected to further disrupt many areas of life, exacerbating existing challenges to prosperity posed by aging and deteriorating infrastructure, stressed ecosystems, and economic inequality” (U.S. Global Change Research Program 2018).

‘We can still avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change—but only if we urgently link hope to action.’

It’s us. At the same time, the link between human activity, in particular our use of fossil fuels, and the warming of the planet has been well established (Heede, 2014; IPCC, 2021; U.S. Global Research Program, 2018). NASA recently summarized our situation: “The current warming trend is of particular significance because it is unequivocally the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over millennia” (NASA, 2022).

According to Katherine Hayhoe (2021), starting in 1824 with French mathematician and scientist Joseph Fourier, scientists have outlined the dynamics of the changing atmosphere for more than a century (e.g., Fourier, 1999; Foote, 1856; Tyndall, 1861). Now a majority of the American public acknowledges that climate change is human caused (Marlon et al., 2022).

It’s bad. The ecological, health and economic impacts of climate change are now clear. In the United States, already we have witnessed the devastation of droughts, wildfires, floods, and extreme weather events (U.S. Global Research Program, 2018), with more forecast. The public health community also has documented climate change’s significant risks to vulnerable populations, including older adults. In 2021 the editors of 200 medical journals across the globe co-signed and co-published a Comment warning that “[t]he greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C and to restore nature” (Lukoye et al., 2021).

Economically, the costs of climate change are readily apparent. The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s (USGCRP) fourth national assessment warned that, due to climate change, “annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product... of many U.S. states” (USGCRP, 2018).

Experts agree. There is a considerable scientific consensus on the causes of climate change. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that it is human-caused (Cook et al., 2016). Understanding this consensus is what climate communicators have called a “gateway belief” (van der Linden et al., 2015), significantly affecting individuals’ perceptions of climate change.

There’s hope. A recurrent theme among climate scientists is that we can still avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change—but only if we urgently link hope to action (Hayhoe, 2021). A recent IPCC report warns that there is a limited window of time for action, while highlighting steps we can take to reduce the impacts of climate change (IPCC, 2022c).

‘Today, 72% of Americans acknowledge that climate change is happening, and 62% report being worried about it.’

Consider one sector, energy, and what Yural Harari calls the 2% energy solution. Because the energy sector is the source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions, progress in this sector is crucial. A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2021) outlines the steps to reduce carbon emissions of the energy sector to net zero by 2050. The IEA’s strategies would require that we spend just 2% more of our annual global Gross Domestic Product than we now spend on our energy system (Harari, 2022). With annual climate change–related losses in some economic sectors projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars in the United States alone (USGRCP, 2018), this modest investment could have large pay-offs, economically and ecologically.

At the same time, experts caution against “doomism”: assuming that there is nothing we can do to alter the course of climate change (Buckley, 2022). Doomism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy assuring that future generations will have a more difficult future.

Older Adults: A Resource on Climate Change?

Gerontologists have focused on aging and climate change for more than a decade (e.g., Haq et al., 2007), including in an earlier issue of Generations Journal (ASA, 2009–2010). At that time, the general public’s view of climate change was more mixed. Today, 72% of Americans acknowledge that climate change is happening, and 62% report being worried about it (Yale PCCC, 2022).

The most recent global meeting on the climate crisis, COP26 in Glasgow, highlighted that climate anxiety is not limited to a single generation. But older adults may have both a special responsibility and opportunity in responding (Smyer, 2021). Recent international surveys have documented that 59% of younger people reported being very or extremely worried about climate change (Marks, et al., 2021). In addition, in the United States, 60% report being dismissed or ignored when they raise this issue with older generations. This provides an opening, a special, constructive role older adults can play in their circles of influence.

This is the time for those of us who work with and for older adults to ask a simple question: What would it take to move our circles of influence to climate action?

In this issue, we offer examples of colleagues who have answered this question well.

An Overview of This Special Issue

We begin with a call to action from ASA’s President and CEO, Peter Kaldes. He reminds us that the climate crisis will affect each of us personally and professionally and that we have a special challenge in working with older adults. Highlighting ASA’s strategic emphasis on climate change, Kaldes points to specific steps ASA’s Public Policy Committee will take in the coming years, highlighting health and environmental justice themes.

The climate crisis requires rethinking some basic assumptions about the life course and aging. Chenghao Wang and his colleagues from the Stanford Longevity Institute consider the challenges of planning for longevity in an era of climate crisis. Manfred Diehl from Colorado State University focuses on the impact on individuals’ framing of aging and health in an era of climate change. Shifting from a deficit- and loss-focused view of later life may help older adults and those who work with them to appreciate and develop opportunities for climate action and activism.

Milanika S. Turner highlights the ongoing climate justice challenges deriving from the uneven impacts of climate change, particularly among indigenous communities and communities of color. Turner links climate justice directly to ASA’s concerns for justice and equity and for health and well-being in later life, a theme echoed in the larger public health community (Levy & Hernandez, 2022).

Ryan Frederick, an author and developer, broadens the scope of age-friendly communities and developments. He asks us to consider eco-friendly and age-friendly as integrated approaches in designing living environments to help all of us adapt to changes across the life span.

We are reflecting on the climate crisis while enduring another global challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic. Pai and Olatunboson-Alakija (2021) remind us that “ending the pandemic will restore our faith in humanity and prepare us to face the ultimate test—climate crisis.” Kasley Killam, a social entrepreneur focused on health concerns, asks what COVID-19 lessons we can apply to climate challenges. Her answer—the importance of social solidarity—may surprise you.

Karl Pillemer, founder of Cornell’s Retirees in Service to the Environment (RISE) program, and his colleagues highlight the valuable roles that older volunteers can play in responding to the climate crisis. They outline several key ingredients to success in creating a vibrant climate engagement for older adults, as well as barriers to including older climate volunteers.

Bob Gettings spent his career focused on disability rights. In his retirement, though, he has turned into a climate advocate. In his article, he describes his strategies for mobilizing his own circles of influence to climate action.

If you’re going to do one thing on the climate crisis, talk about it!

Like Gettings, Rick Lent has concentrated on the climate crisis. Rick describes the actions and impacts of the Boston chapter of Elders Climate Action, and highlights a central question: How can elders work to build a better climate legacy?

The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, a national advisor on climate issues to the Congregational Church, reminds us of the powerful roles that religious institutions can play in responding to the climate crisis. Older adults are overrepresented among the churchgoing population and stewardship of God’s creation is consistent with many faith traditions.

The climate crisis disproportionately affects indigenous communities and communities of color, with greater exposure to air pollution, sea level rise, drought, and other impacts (Mary Robinson Foundation, 2011). Indigenous activist Amelia Marchand reminds us of the wisdom of indigenous elders on climate issues. She describes practices and attitudes that can help us foster a respectful attitude linking action and hope.

For instance, is it true that Baby Boomers don’t care about climate change? Jennifer Marlon and her colleagues from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) help us understand generational similarities and differences in climate concern. Drawing on national survey data, they highlight points of agreement and disagreement, and possible steps for intergenerational cooperation on climate action.

Finally, climate activist and author Bill McKibben is no newcomer to climate issues. In contrast, he is newly focused on harnessing the talents of older adults on behalf of climate action. Bill describes his new organization, Third Act, designed to do just that.

What Would it Take?

What would it take for you to move your circles of influence to climate action?

A first step would be to break our climate silence or climate avoidance habit. Although72% of Americans know that global warming is happening, only 35% of us talk even occasionally with family members and friends about it (Yale PCCC, 2022). Hayhoe (2021) suggests that if you’re going to do one thing on the climate crisis, talk about it!

Another good step would be to become a “climate literate” professional, understanding the impact the climate crisis will have on your setting and the people with whom you work. Clayton and her colleagues (2017) recognized the trauma and anxiety that accompany extreme weather events and the longer-term impacts of climate change. They urged mental health professionals to become climate literate. What might a climate literate geriatric specialist look like?

Finally, consider your personal and professional circles of influence. How might you “think globally and act locally” when it comes to the climate crisis? For example, I am on the board of a local life plan community. I asked our executive director if she had reviewed the county’s climate action plan for its implications for our community. “I will!” she answered.

Looking for those climate connections in our daily lives is the first step toward climate action for ourselves and those with whom we work.

Michael “Mick” Smyer, PhD, is the former provost and a professor emeritus of psychology at Bucknell University in Lewisberg, Pennsylvania, and the founder and CEO of Growing Greener: Climate Action for a Warming World.

Photo: September 2019, global climate strike, Australia.

Photo credit: SewCream



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