Combating Climate Change in an Era of Longevity


As the number of older adults increases, disproportionate impacts of climate change pose great challenges to healthy longevity. These inequities will be compounded in future generations. Large-scale climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies require often unavailable institutional, financial, and technical support. We need to quickly develop and implement new behavioral and social solutions to help increase public engagement. This article outlines promising institutional, policy, and cultural changes that focus on leveraging the prosociality of older adults and strengthening intergenerational bonds to combat and build resilience to climate change.

Key Words:

climate change, intergenerational relationships, prosocial behavior, social norms, public engagement


There is arguably no greater risk to the longevity of future generations than climate change, which can disproportionately affect vulnerable populations and communities with long-term impacts that last a lifetime. Moreover, current inequities will be compounded in future generations. Intergenerational partnerships present a novel resource that can facilitate well-being, learning, and productivity of individuals and groups, serving as one of the core building blocks of healthy longevity. We need intergenerational unity and cooperation to combat climate change, and it is time for action.

Heterogeneous Impacts of Climate Change on Healthy Longevity from a Life-course Perspective

Global life expectancy more than doubled in the past century and is projected to continue increasing in the coming decades. Concurrent declines in fertility and mortality rates resulted in the global population aging, exerting burdens on healthcare, private pensions, and social security systems. At the same time, climate change is causing more frequent and intense climate and weather extremes, including heat waves, droughts, fires, storms, and floods, all of which directly threaten infrastructure safety and public health. In the coming years, climate change is expected to further affect land use and food production, exacerbate water and air pollution, and alter the distribution of disease vectors, with long-lasting health consequences (Watts et al., 2015). Ironically, these changes are expected to negatively impact the very public health advances that contributed to longer lives in the 20th century.

The adverse impacts of climate change on populations are not uniform. Children, older people, women, and people with health problems are especially vulnerable to climate change impacts (Watts et al., 2015). Exposure to extreme heat is one example. More frequent heat waves can intensify heat stress and amplify existing conditions and physiological stress, leading to higher risks of premature death and disability. Air pollution is another example. Warmer climate and increasing human activities can worsen air quality and increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases for vulnerable populations (Orru, Ebi, & Forsberg, 2017).

Figure 1.

Figure 1

Country-level (climate change) adaptation index in 2019 (Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index). Countries in white are where data are not available.

Climate change also disproportionately impacts people of color, often in high-density, lower-income communities. Such communities often have limited access to healthy indoor and outdoor environments, healthcare services, and other resources (Miller et al., 2021; Wang et al., 2021). Consequently, they often suffer more losses from extreme weather events and natural disasters (e.g., Masozera, Bailey, and Kerchner, 2007).

Most adverse impacts due to climate change accumulate over the life course and have significant consequences for health and well-being in later years (Wang et al., 2021). Exposure to high levels of air pollutants, beginning in utero, has been linked to risk for an array of diseases and brain impairment (Clifford et al., 2016). Air pollution appears to accelerate the aging process of the brain and arteries and is associated with higher risks of dementia and cognitive decline (Clifford et al., 2016). Severe exposure to heat stress, including heatstroke, also can cause permanent damage to organ functioning (Epstein and Yanovich, 2019).

In addition, there are disparities in the impacts of climate change among countries. Although higher-income countries produced most historical greenhouse gas emissions, lower-income countries are likely to experience the most adverse health consequences of climate change (Levy and Patz, 2015). With fewer financial resources and reduced capacity to adapt to climate change, children living in these countries will be exposed to environmental conditions (e.g., intensified heat stress) that exacerbate health problems as they age. As a result, young people in these countries will be exposed to environmental conditions that decrease the likelihood of healthy longevity, thereby extending negative impacts far into the future.

Figure 1, above, shows the country-level Global Adaptation Index, a score that indicates climate change vulnerability and adaptation readiness. Compared to most higher-income countries, lower-income countries typically have lower scores, suggesting a higher level of vulnerability with a lower level of adaptation readiness for the adverse impacts of climate change.

These inequities will be compounded in future generations. As global warming continues, younger generations will experience more extreme weather events and severe climate change impacts throughout their lifetimes than older generations. With the current warming trend, children born in 2020 will experience a twofold to sevenfold increase in extreme events (especially heat waves) when compared to people born in 1960 (Thiery et al., 2021). This extra burden of climate change on younger generations signals the need to combat climate change for healthy longevity.

Unite Generations to Address Climate Change

Limiting global warming and mitigating the negative impacts of climate change requires large-scale transitions in energy, land, and industrial systems, including energy efficiency, the carbon intensity of fuels, land use and ecosystems, agricultural practices, and food production (de Coninck et al., 2018). Many of these mitigation and adaptation strategies demand strong institutional, financial, and technical support. To be successful, lower-income countries with limited resources will need support and financial aid from governments of wealthier nations, private sectors, foundations, and non-governmental organizations. To date, such aid is grossly insufficient to help lower-income countries mitigate and adapt to climate change (Timperley, 2021). Our failure to implement these existing interventions demands social and behavioral solutions. (See Milanika S. Turner’s article in this issue for more on climate justice issues.)

The Stanford Center on Longevity is premised on the belief that redesigning our institutions, policies, and social norms is the central task for building a world that supports healthy longevity across populations and generations—a goal that requires combating and building resilience to climate change. The Center recently embarked on a major initiative called “The New Map of Life,” designed to support promising ideas for cultural, policy, and institutional changes that can improve well-being and flourishing at each life stage and across various domains (The Stanford Center on Longevity, 2021). We argue that this initiative provides a useful framework for considering social and behavioral solutions to increasing public engagement on climate change and developing widespread support for large-scale action.

‘To date, aid has been grossly insufficient to help lower-income countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.’

There is no greater risk to the longevity of future generations than climate change. One of the main tenets of the New Map of Life is that intergenerational partnerships present a novel resource that can facilitate well-being, learning, and productivity of individuals and groups, serving as one of the core building blocks of healthy longevity. Unprecedented age diversity is a resource uniquely suited to addressing the issues and strengthening generational bonds. Coupling the ambition and future orientation typical of youth with the emotional stability, expertise, and resources of older adults has the potential to mount an intergenerational effort that could bring about significant change in combating climate change.

Well-documented developmental changes in adulthood suggest that age diversity in a climate movement could be a major asset. Younger and older people prioritize different types of goals, both of which are needed to form global alliances. Younger people place high priority on novelty and exploration and are more willing to pursue difficult tasks even in the face of negative emotions. With age, priorities shift. Rather than exploration, priority is placed on investments in important, well-known people and causes. At advanced ages, people display preferences for selectively savoring special moments more than broadly exploring new ones. According to socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, 2006; 2021), age differences reflect differences in perceived time horizons. When time horizons are long, as they typically are in youth, new experiences are prioritized because they prepare individuals for expansive and nebulous futures. As time horizons shrink, as they typically do with age, people come to prioritize emotionally meaningful experiences.

These motivational differences are evident in cognitive processing. Younger people attend to and process negative stimuli more deeply than older people. Older people focus on positive stimuli to the exclusion of negative stimuli (Carstensen and DeLiema, 2017). These observations underscore the potential of an age-diverse movement to combat climate change: a movement that includes individuals who are unrelenting in their pursuit of knowledge alongside individuals who are emotionally stable and invested in the broader social good.

Older people tend to prioritize investing in loved ones, and studies have shown that older people are more likely to expend effort, e.g., by walking more to earn money for charities of their choice than younger people (Raposo et al., 2020). One recent study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that, compared to younger adults, older adults were more prosocial, too (Cutler et al., 2021). Findings from Cutler et al. (2021) were especially notable because their sample spanned 67 countries and included participants ages 18 to 99. In each country, participants were presented with a hypothetical windfall of a day’s earnings (adjusted to each country's mean) and asked how much of the funds they would contribute to a charity. Across diverse regions of the world, older people allocated more than younger people to charities, underscoring the potential to enlist older people to invest in the welfare of others.

However, Cutler et al. (2021) also revealed an important caveat. Although evidence for increasing interest in charitable contributions with age was noted across counties, older people selectively invested in local and national organizations, not global causes. Thus, even though older people appear to derive happiness and purpose through helping others, they are selective in their investments. This trend among older adults toward in-group and in-country preferences presents an obstacle for increasing contributions to broader, international efforts. We expect that selective investments in emotionally close relationships contribute to relatively low levels of public engagement with climate change reported by older Americans (Reinhart, 2018). All things being equal, older people invest in rewarding and emotionally close social relationships, typically family members and long-time friends.

In one study, older people were found to selectively invest in local and national organizations, not global causes.

Climate change, in contrast, demands investments that extend far beyond immediate social circles. Channeling this prosocial motivation toward engagement with climate change represents a major opportunity and challenge. By building bonds across generations—likely based initially upon grandparent and grandchild relationships—a movement would benefit from the strengths of multiple generations.

At this point in history, how can we bring about change in our approach to climate change to help the next generations, and how can older adults help lead the charge? Climate change is about the future and younger people are keenly focused on long-term outcomes. To the extent that older people can leverage their influence and resources to the cause, younger people will be motivated to connect with older generations. Older people, in contrast, may engage if the opportunity involves meaningful contact with loved ones.

To extend these motivations to engagement with climate change, we must act quickly to develop effective ways to encourage prosocial actions toward younger generations locally and globally. Securing not just healthy longevity, but the survival of future generations rests on adult populations around the world. Almost universally, grandparents care about their grandchildren. We need a call for action to quickly build new institutions, cultural norms, and social movements that unite generations and protect the well-being of our children and grandchildren.

A Call to Action: Uniting Older and Younger People in Working Toward Sustainability

Although climate change is one of the most urgent and serious global issues, people tend to regard it as a problem that is distant and impersonal (van der Linden et al., 2015). Many older adults view climate change as not posing a serious threat in their lifetimes (Reinhart, 2018). Adults, in general, often view the risks as more relevant for other people living in other places. Public communication that emphasizes the immediate and ongoing adverse effects of climate change could help to counter people’s tendency to discount the risks as happening in the distant future. Focusing on risks at the local level is particularly effective (van der Linden et al., 2015). These communications may highlight for older adults that climate change impacts are already happening in their communities, affecting people they care about most. Helping older adults to view climate change as a deeply personal issue is crucial for increasing engagement.

Beyond increasing the salience of local and regional climate impacts, we need to develop methods to increase engagement with large-scale, international efforts. Cohort differences in exposures to and attitudes about globalization contribute to generational differences in attention to global concerns. Building on evidence for selective prosociality, we suspect that programs in which children solicit help from parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are more likely to generate behavioral and financial assistance from older generations than generic pleas for assistance. To the extent that cross-generational partnerships are formed within families and among close friends, a united front to combat climate change can be built that would also increase emotional closeness with loved ones.

‘Helping older adults to view climate change as a deeply personal issue is crucial for increasing engagement.’

Even small, high-profile programs could elicit broad changes. Behavioral science shows that social norms are powerful regulators of behavior—we often act in line with how we perceive others are behaving. Policymakers and organizations should aim to develop and leverage social norms among older adults around increased engagement with climate change (van der Linden et al., 2015). For example, research suggests that high-energy–consuming households adjust their behavior when they learn about the average energy consumption of their neighbors (Schultz et al., 2007). Developing methods to increase social comparison of behaviors across generations that impact climate footprint, such as daily choices of energy consumption, travel mode, and diet, could motivate positive changes in behavior.

In other domains that require us to visualize the future, we have mechanisms in place that help us make short-term sacrifices for longer-term benefits. Much in the same way that we have social institutions and structures in place to help people save money for their future retirement, we need products and services that help individuals invest in climate change solutions. Bequests from the Baby Boomer generation are estimated to reach trillions of dollars. To the extent that the oldest generations are convinced of the relevance of climate change to their offspring, we expect that contributions would increase. Similar to retirement plans, programs and institutions could help adults of all ages understand how and where to contribute to efforts to reduce the negative impacts of climate change. Another possibility is creating structures of financial credits and incentives for investing in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. These efforts could help to popularize and establish new socially responsible funds that include, for example, companies using green energy but exclude those heavily dependent upon fossil fuels. In addition to bequests, climate funds incorporated into retirement investment offerings would create a dynamic in which people simultaneously save for their futures while supporting younger generations.

We are living in an unprecedented era of age diversity, and with it, we have an abundance of opportunities for strengthening intergenerational bonds. But these bonds do not necessarily extend outside of our families. One reason for this is that our culture, and institutions such as schools and workplaces, segregate populations based upon age. This segregation undermines the ability to develop meaningful relationships with people who are younger or older. We believe that one of the potential benefits of promoting intergenerational relationships is increasing the salience of climate change impacts among older adults.

In our New Map of Life report, we identified several promising action steps for decreasing age segregation (The Stanford Center on Longevity, 2021). Changing zoning laws and providing developer incentives could increase access to affordable multifamily and multigenerational housing and communities. Programs that provide structure for bringing younger and older people together, often in the context of volunteering or educational activities, have been linked to a variety of benefits in health, well-being, and learning. Implementing these programs on a larger scale, such as integrating them with public schools, could help strengthen bonds across generations.

Increasing the number of positive interactions and relationships that older adults have with younger people outside of their own families could help motivate increased environmental concerns. Intergenerational programming that explicitly focuses on climate resilience and readiness could be particularly promising for inspiring climate action.

Chenghao Wang, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University and a New Map of Life fellow at the Stanford Center on Longevity; Jonas G. Miller, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University and a New Map of Life fellow; Robert B. Jackson, PhD, is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy. Laura L. Carstensen, PhD, is the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor in Public Policy and Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, and the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.



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