Older adults are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but they represent an enormous resource in efforts to prevent and mitigate its impact. This article summarizes the benefits and barriers associated with environmental activism by older adults. Benefits include enhancing older adults’ health, self-efficacy, and generativity, and providing volunteers for environmental organizations and communities. Barriers to widespread engagement of older adults include their lower levels of support for pro-environmental policies and less concern about climate change, and their systematic lack of access to environmental volunteer opportunities. It also outlines efforts to mobilize climate change activism targeted to elders, and addresses barriers grounded in ageism.
climate change, environment, activism, volunteerism
Climate change impacts will include an increased incidence of disease, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and shortages of water and food worldwide. Older people globally are among the most at risk for the consequences of climate change due to decreased mobility, changes in physiology, and limited access to resources, all of which may reduce their adaptive capacity (Sykes, 2021). They are more vulnerable to the effects of temperature extremes and have a significantly higher mortality risk in extreme weather events, both of which are exacerbated by climate change (Harper, 2019). For these reasons, there has been an almost exclusive emphasis on older people as victims of climate change and on protecting them from the negative effects on their health and well-being.
However, viewing older individuals only as passive victims of environmental threats is an overly narrow and limiting perspective. Equally critical to efforts to combat climate change is understanding and promoting opportunities for older people to act on their own behalf and that of others. Public involvement and political engagement are essential to curb fossil fuel consumption and limit the rise in global temperature. Older adults around the world can be active participants rather than passive actors when it comes to climate change, by mobilizing in large numbers to address local environmental problems through civic environmentalism. The life experience of older people can be brought to bear in action to prevent climate change and mitigate its effects.
Despite small-scale efforts locally, nationally, and internationally, the current cohort of older environmental activists represents the “tip of the iceberg” and the potential for large-scale involvement is much higher (see Bill McKibben’s article, What’s Your Third Act?). Older adults often have more time for civic engagement and volunteerism, and they have critical lived experience and expertise to contribute to such efforts. To date, however, most environmental organizations have not been successful in maximizing older people’s involvement, nor have most aging-related associations become involved in promoting environmental activism.
This situation is unfortunate because fostering wide-scale involvement of older persons in environmental civic engagement and volunteerism is likely to have substantial benefits for the individuals involved and their communities. Important questions must be answered, including: What is the current role of older people in climate change activism? How can environmental activism be promoted with older adults? What are the barriers to such engagement?
In this article, we provide an overview of key issues in older environmental activism. By the term “older environmental activism,” we mean behaviors in which older people engage, often in collaboration with organizations, to tackle issues such as climate change, sustainability, and conservation. First, we examine the potential benefits of expanded environmental activism for older persons and for communities. Then we note barriers to wider engagement of older people in climate change action. We conclude with suggestions to better understand and promote older environmental activism.
Benefits of Older Environmental Activism
Globally, older environmental activism provides an excellent opportunity to address two pressing social problems simultaneously: the need for greater social integration and participation of older persons and the mounting concern about climate change and its effects. Environmental activism has added value for older persons beyond activities more conventionally performed in later life. First, environmental activism has health benefits for older persons. Engagement in pro-environmental activities promotes physical and mental health among older people. A major reason for the beneficial effects of environmental activism is an increase in physical activity (Pillemer et al., 2010). Another mechanism for positive effects is that taking action to resolve local environmental problems is empowering and can enhance older people’s self-efficacy. Thus, engaging in environmental activism may be an especially effective way to achieve healthy and active aging.
‘Increased environmental activism has enormous potential benefit to communities.’
Second, theory and research on human development show that older persons experience a need for generativity—that is, for activities that are focused on improving the world and leaving a legacy for future generations. A rewarding activity at this life stage is making a positive contribution to the local environment, as stewardship of the environment is of critical importance to the quality of life for future generations. Research suggests that the desire to extend one’s influence into the future and leave a lasting personal legacy motivates individuals toward climate change action (Chen et al., 2022; Zaval, Markowitz, & Weber, 2015). In addition, greater generativity is strongly correlated with concern for and engagement with the environment, suggesting that environmental organizations and movements can find a pool of potential activists among older people. Thus, environmental activism is an appropriate fit for the developmental tasks of later life.
Beyond individuals, increased environmental activism has enormous potential benefit to communities. Environmental volunteerism has been identified as one of the most important solutions to environmental problems, in particular on the local level. The success, even the existence, of many environmental efforts depends upon activists, including endangered species protection, scientific environmental data collection, water quality monitoring, and maintenance of protected natural areas.
An evaluation of a model environmental engagement program estimated that local communities gained approximately 1,875 to 2,500 hours of environmental volunteer effort. Further, program participants created new programs in their local communities that would not have otherwise existed (Pillemer et al., 2017). Thus, increased older environmental activism can offer gains to communities in which it takes place.
In terms of climate change, social mobilization is critically important in shifting policies, practices, and daily habits to achieve low-carbon outcomes. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of environmental movements in changing the policies and behavior of corporations (Carberry et al., 2017) and of governments (Shandas & Messer, 2008), as well as promoting local pro-environmental behavior (Prasetiyo, Kamarudin, & Dewantara, 2019). Older people can contribute to this process globally through such activities as building public support for governmental policies and promoting citizens’ capacity to carry out climate change mitigation and adaptation projects.
Filling the Need: Older Environmental Activists
The importance of volunteers in conservation and environmental sustainability activities has grown over the past two decades (Chen et al., 2022). One concern for environmental organizations is attracting and retaining a sufficient supply of volunteers. Engaging the relatively untapped source of older persons presents one solution (Pillemer et al., 2017). This approach is likely to be productive, because older adults’ numbers are increasing, their work and family responsibilities are decreasing, and they often occupy positions as respected local leaders. To channel this age group’s time and effort into environmental activism, it is important to create environmental roles for older persons that are inclusive, rewarding, and that maximize their strengths and abilities. Understanding potential barriers to environmental engagement is one key to increasing older people’s involvement.
Barriers to Environmental Activism
Despite the potential benefits, data from the United States, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Spain, and the Czech Republic show that rates of environmental volunteerism are much lower among people ages 65 and older than for most other types of volunteering (Kafková, 2019; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). In contrast, individuals ages 75 and older make up a third of the participants in environmental organizations in the Netherlands (32%). The higher participation rate in the Netherlands may be due to a strong tradition in formal volunteering and stronger pro-environmental attitudes than in other countries (Kafková, 2019).
‘Models used by many organizations do not meet the needs of older environmental activists.’
Thus, there is considerable room globally to develop more environmental activism opportunities for older adults. Existing research suggests two major barriers that depress the interest of older persons in environmental activism: attitudes toward the environment and organizational barriers.
Age Differences in Environmental Attitudes
Older adults’ lack of involvement in environmental activism may stem in part from age differences in environmental skepticism and pro-environmental attitudes. Both longitudinal (Winden, Jamelske, & Tvinnereim, 2018) and cross-sectional data (Carlsson et al., 2012; Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015; Wright & Lund, 2003) suggest that a hypothetical financial commitment to the environment varies with age. Specifically, studies involving participants from Indonesia, Japan, Australia, the United States, and Sweden show that older adults are less inclined than younger adults to sacrifice part of their income on behalf of a clean environment (Gifford & Sussman, 2012; cf. Winden, Jamelske, & Tvinnereim, 2018).
Overall, support for pro-environmental policies, such as pledging divestment from fossil fuels or curtailing the emission of greenhouse gases, is lower among older adults than younger adults. This trend appears to be true across countries, holding for older adults from Poland, France, India, Australia, and the United States. Similarly, older European adults see the least benefit in clean technologies and alternative energy sources (Special Eurobarometer 459, 2017).
Although the relationship between age and climate change denial is not fully clear, there is fairly consistent evidence that younger adults are more concerned about climate change than older individuals (Gifford and Sussman, 2012; Zaval, Weber, & Spada, 2013). Recent research in the United States has shown other factors, such as party affiliation, may be more important than age in determining environmental attitudes. This issue is worth further exploration (see Jennifer Marlon’s article, How Do Climate Change Views Differ by Generation?).
It is important to note that older adults’ attitudes toward the environment vary considerably across countries, subgroups within countries (e.g., regions, ethnic groups, cultures, etc.), and among individuals. Nevertheless, older adults seem generally less concerned about climate change, less willing to make a personal effort to preserve the environment, and less prepared to support pro-environmental policies. Because beliefs and attitudes are linked to potential actions—such as willingness to pay for environmental protection, membership in pro-environmental organizations, and acceptance of green policies (Zaval, Weber, & Spada, 2013)—understanding age differences regarding climate change and its consequences is important in developing strategies to increase their involvement in pro-environmental activities.
Structural and Organizational Barriers to Older Environmental Activism
Equally important are several major structural barriers to wider engagement among older people in environmental activism (Wells & Pillemer, 2015). First, older people often feel that they lack sufficient expertise or knowledge about environmental issues to contribute effectively (Bushway et al., 2011). Second, older adults report being unaware of opportunities for environmental activism in their communities and uncertainty as to how they could become involved. Easily accessible resources describing the range of environmental engagement opportunities, some oriented specifically to the experience and situations of older adults, are needed. Special considerations include the need for engagement that is adapted for different ability levels and preferences for leisure time engagement specific to retirement.
‘Environmental justice initiatives should embrace an intergenerational framework, focusing on links between old and young.’
Third, models used by many organizations do not meet the needs of older environmental activists who often cite different communication styles from younger organizational members and who may be relegated to less important or menial tasks than younger participants (Chen et al., 2022). Therefore, they need to be able to advocate for themselves in acquiring meaningful volunteer work. The program Retirees in Service to the Environment (Pillemer et al., 2017) includes a full-day workshop designed to give participants the skills needed to be effective environmental volunteers and prepare them to seek volunteer activities that fit their interests. The workshop includes several activities to identify personal leadership traits and core values, as well as to learn how to communicate more effectively about goals.
Fourth, a structural barrier is a lack of resources, which may inhibit environmental activism in low-resource countries. Research shows that occupying privileged status provides the individual with larger amounts of money and time, as well as relevant skills, which leads to greater political participation in general (Marquart-Pyatt, 2012). Although economically and socially disadvantaged older people can and do become environmental activists, this kind of stewardship is inhibited when socioeconomic conditions fail to provide them with support for their basic needs.
Promoting Older Environmental Activism
Research and limited existing program models suggest potential options for fostering volunteerism around climate change, environmental sustainability, and conservation.
Organizational Solutions to Barriers to Older Environmental Activism
There are five key components of successful programs for engaging older people in climate change action:
Some older people feel they do not understand the issues or do not have the specialized expertise needed for some activities (e.g., water quality testing). Programs can provide basic science-based educational sessions adapted for older audiences and those with fewer resources. Citizen science initiatives, where participants learn new skills and technologies, can help fill this knowledge gap to address climate change. For example, the Our Voice project involved older adults as citizen scientists to assess walkability (Tuckett et al., 2018). Participants were trained in an app to identify environmental features that helped or hindered physical activity in their neighborhood. They then advocated with local decision-makers for improvements, such as footpaths and traffic safety, which would promote physical activity.
Provide Leadership Training
Training is needed to help older adults understand the range and types of volunteer engagement opportunities, how their values affect environmental activities, and how to make the most of a volunteer job. Such training must be adapted to high- vs. low-resource countries, local environments, and diverse audiences.
Adapt Activities to Ability Level
Older participants require a range of roles, including some activities that are fully accessible, provide transportation, or are specially designed for diminished physical capacity.
Ageism occurs in the environmental movement, and environmental organizations should embody the values of inclusion and diversity more fully. Environmental justice initiatives should embrace an intergenerational framework, focusing on links between old and young (Dennis and Stock, 2019).
Include Alternatives to Internet-based Strategies
Many environmental programs, particularly from high-income countries, rely on internet engagement. Face-to-face strategies have been used effectively in low-resource communities for environmental engagement programs (Requier et al., 2020). Such options are particularly important for older participants who are less likely to have access to or proficiency in using the internet.
Models for Program Development
To date, there is limited information about the extent and nature of environmental activism among older people worldwide. Case study reports exist from a number of countries (predominantly from the United States and Europe), but little is known about effective methods of promoting environmental activism in later life. Particularly lacking is information from low-resource countries. Therefore, a major task is to better understand and evaluate the involvement of older people in climate change action and to document “best practices” for such engagement. Although environmental action by older people is taking place in many low- and middle-income countries, such engagement has not been publicized adequately.
Despite this lack of information, some efforts have been documented. Although older people make up part of the membership, donor base, and volunteers of many local and national environmental organizations, our focus is on programs, projects, and activities that specifically target older adults. These programs fall into six general categories: government initiatives; national initiatives; international initiatives; intergenerational initiatives; local or regional indicatives; and citizen science initiatives.
We profile these program areas and provide examples in Table 1, below. As the table demonstrates, we need much greater understanding and documentation of program models that promote and sustain environmental action among older adults, especially outside of high-income countries. Therefore, an important task is to create a clearinghouse of older adult environmental activism that documents initiatives across the world. Transfer of best practices across countries can be an important component of promoting effective environmental activism in later life.
Conclusion: Need for Greater Knowledge
Environmental activism in the older population can be life-enhancing to the individuals involved and beneficial to their communities. Their organized engagement can mitigate the effects of climate change and environmental quality more broadly. However, this resource is underutilized, with only a few older persons volunteering for environmental organizations and activities.
A high priority is to understand the causes and dynamics of later-life environmental activism and barriers to such involvement. Specific questions for consideration by researchers in partnership with organizational leaders and policymakers include:
What are the barriers to environmental activism among older people? What role do physical limitations or lack of internet proficiency play? Does offering a range of volunteer possibilities increase participation? What kinds of activities are most successful? How can barriers be diminished in minority and low-income populations, which have been less likely to engage in such activities?
How can programs transform environmental activism into lasting pro-environmental behaviors? How can organizations structure environmental engagement experiences to accommodate older persons with different needs or from different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds? How can environmental organizations develop the organizational capacity to create appropriate jobs for older adults interested in engaging? How can programs be adapted across countries and cultures?
What are the measurable benefits of later-life environmental engagement? Do specific types of environmental volunteering lead to more health or well-being benefits to participants than others? Does environmental activism confer added value over other types of activism, especially given its potential to leave a legacy for future generations? How can science help make the case for the benefits of older environmental action?
Our earlier discussion of potential benefits suggests that environmental activism is highly appropriate across countries for the “third age,” and can lead to positive outcomes for older people and their communities. Given current low rates of participation in such activities, flexible and appropriately adapted program models and recruitment methods are needed to promote environmental activism more successfully in later life. Because of the urgency of the problem of climate change, harnessing the vast potential of older people to combat it and mitigate its consequences must become a top priority.
Acknowledgments: We are grateful to Caitlin Littleton and Eduardo Klein for their comments on an earlier version of this article.
Funding: Karl Pillemer acknowledges support from an Edward R. Roybal Center Grant from the National Institute on Aging (P30AG022845).
Karl A. Pillemer, PhD, is the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the College of Human Ecology, Cornell University; Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine; and Director, Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging. Julia Nolte, MA, MSc, is a doctoral candidate in the Healthy Aging Laboratory at Cornell. Marie Tillema Cope, MPH, MSW, is a research support specialist at the Bronfenbrenner Center.
Photo: School Strike for Climate, 2019, Australia.
Photo credit: Holli
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