This article has a concrete plan in Third Act, an organizing project to help to solve the climate crisis. Older Americans need to use their political power to support the right candidates and their substantial monetary gain to pressure banks to stop supporting the fossil fuel industry.
Third Act, Baby Boomers, Paris conference, fossil fuels, big banks
Who should be leading the fight to stop climate change? Young people are currently at the forefront, and that makes sense: they’re going to have to live out their lives on a heating planet. But it’s not practical to assign the deepest dangers we’ve ever faced as a species to 17-year-olds as if it was extra homework. And it’s not fair either, because they didn’t cause it. We did—those of us of a certain age.
Which is why Third Act, the new organizing project for experienced Americans, is taking on the fight. If you’re 70 years old, 85% of the planet’s carbon emissions have occurred in your lifetime (Kaye, 2021). Yes, climate change had its birth in the 1700s when we first learned to burn coal in engines, but the process really got going in our lifetimes, and in the United States.
Americans have, of course, been buying cars in serious numbers since 1931 when Henry Ford started up his assembly line, but until the end of World War II the numbers were not that big: in 1950 there were only 25 million cars registered in the country. But the postwar boom was upon us: U.S. factories produced 8 million new cars that year and by the end of the decade there were 67 million cars on the roads of America.
Kings in Consuming Energy
By 1970, Americans consumed a third of the world’s energy—more than the Soviet Union, Britain, West Germany, and Japan combined. And mostly because of the car. By then there were 118 million cars and trucks on the American road—more than quadruple the number from 20 years before. The cars were big: 20% bigger than they had been just five years before. Three quarters of them now came with air-conditioning (up from 20% in 1960), which subtracted about two and a half miles a gallon from the fuel efficiency. And because CO2 lasts more than a century in the atmosphere, all that carbon is still up there, trapping heat.
Even after the gas crisis of the 1970s we just kept going—in fact, it’s hard to remember the time before SUVs, when we transported our bodies and our possessions without the aid of semi-military vehicles. By the end of the 1980s scientists had firmly warned us what we were doing to the temperature of the earth—but that didn’t slow us down. Humans have emitted more carbon dioxide since 1990 than in all prior history.
‘Money is the oxygen on which the fires of global warming burn; if we can shut down that cash pipeline, we can snuff out the blaze.’
Don’t think young people haven’t noticed. They are, rightly, scared about the world we’re leaving them. In November of 2020, researchers surveying people ages 26 to 45 found that 96% of them were “very or extremely concerned about the wellbeing of their potential future children in a climate-changed world.” One of the researchers said, “it was often heartbreaking to pore through the responses—a lot of people really poured their hearts out” (Carrington, 2020).
Because we’ve waited so long to get started, it’s going to be hard to deal with climate change: scientists tell us that even if we want to hit the middling temperature targets the world set at the 2015 Paris conference we’d need by 2030 to cut emissions in half (United Nations, 2016). That’s not technically impossible: scientists and engineers have dramatically cut the cost of renewable energy over the last decade, so solar and wind power are now the cheapest electricity sources on Earth.
But inertia and vested interests stand in the way: the fossil fuel industry continues to cling to its business model, thwarting attempts in Congress and state legislatures to make real change at the pace we need. And we can’t make the climate math work one house at a time anymore. It’s good to put a solar panel on the roof, but don’t fool yourself: the most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual and join together with others to force fundamental changes in politics and finance.
Older Adults Key to Helping
So, here’s the good news. Older people are uniquely poised to help with this process, the ideal complement to the youthful idealism of Greta Thunberg and all her many peers. There are two big reasons that make us crucial to this task.
One, we have lots of political power. Because older people vote in such large numbers they can serve as a block to change—or a catalyst. Swinging our support behind candidates that will move quickly on climate can unlock change faster.
Our contingent marched beneath a banner that read ‘Fossils Against Fossil Fuels.’
And two, even more important, we ended up with most of the money. Fairly or not, the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation have more than 70% of the country’s financial assets in our retirement accounts (Adamczyk, 2020).
We’re not universally comfortable, but taken as a whole our generation has more than those below us, which means we’re able to pressure banks and asset managers in ways no one else can: pressure them to stop lending to the fossil fuel industry. Money is the oxygen on which the fires of global warming burn; if we can shut down that cash pipeline, we can snuff out the blaze.
We’re making some progress. Big pension funds—New York State and New York City, Maine, Quebec—already have begun divesting from fossil fuels (in part because their returns improve). But we can do much more.
We formed Third Act in part because we wanted to tackle this crisis. And now we’re helping coordinate a drive to get older Americans to pledge to withdraw their funds from the banks that are helping spur the crisis. The good news is, there’s always another bank to patronize, and another credit card to take out. Yes, it’s a bit of paperwork to switch accounts—but we have time, we have patience, and with luck we’ll have sufficient determination.
In October, young people asked us to join in protests they were holding outside the banks—Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America—that are the biggest funders of oil and gas. I was in Boston, and it was great fun: we marched and sang, our contingent beneath a banner that read “Fossils Against Fossil Fuels.” It was good for us to be there, and good for the younger people to see elders acting the way we need elders to act if our society is going to survive.
We come from a generation that saw transformative cultural, social, and political change in its first act. Perhaps the second act of a lot of our lives was a little more immersed in consumerism than in citizenship—but that water has flowed beneath the bridge. Now we emerge for our third act, and many of us do it with resources, with skills, and with kids and grandkids that give us extra reason to care about the planet we leave behind.
Bill McKibben is a founder of Third Act and a longtime climate activist and writer. His most recent book is The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened (New York: Macmillan, May 31, 2022).
Photo: A Third Act demonstration against fossil fuels in front of Chase bank in Nevada.
Photo credit: Bob Fulkerson
Adamczyk, A. (2020). Millennials own less than 5% of all U.S. wealth. CNBC, October 9. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from www.cnbc.com/2020/10/09/millennials-own-less-than-5percent-of-all-us-wealth.html.
Carrington, D. (2020). Climate ‘apocalypse’ fears stopping people having children—study. The Guardian, November 27. www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/27/climate-apocalypse-fears-stopping-people-having-children-study
Kaye, N. [@neilkaye]. (2021, February 26). What percentage of all global fossil fuel CO₂ emissions since 1751 have occurred in my lifetime. Twitter. https://twitter.com/neilrkaye/status/1365247133507604486
United Nations. (2016). The Paris Agreement. Retrieved April 6, 2022, from https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement.