With fighting climate change one of the American Society on Aging’s (ASA) top policy priorities, this article describes ASA’s climate policy agenda and details why it is necessary.
climate policy, health policy, environmental justice, emergency preparedness, response, recovery, volunteerism
The global pandemic has elevated aging to front-page news. Arguably not since the original passage of the Older Americans Act in 1965 have aging issues been so front and center on policymakers’ minds. While the worst of the pandemic is beginning to wane, we mustn’t allow aging issues to fade from the spotlight. Now is the time to act on bold measures that will define how aging is treated in this country for generations to come.
Thankfully, the American Society on Aging (ASA) planned for such an opportunity and is ready to champion all its members. ASA’s 2019 strategic plan envisions that by 2024 ASA will expand member engagement in policy development and advocacy; and significantly strengthen ASA’s role and voice as one of the country’s leading aging sector advocates.
To that end, in April 2021, ASA announced its first-ever policy priorities: increasing digital inclusion, battling ageism, improving health equity, and fighting climate change.
To our surprise, it was our focus on climate change that proved to be the most provocative. Yet, an EPA study from 2013 found that a majority of older Americans live in just nine states and that five of those states (California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania) are highly susceptible to climate change. In fact, “20% of older Americans resided in a county where a hurricane or tropical storm was likely to make landfall over the 10-year period from 1995 through 2005” (Gamble et al., 2013).
‘The field of aging can no longer ignore climate change.’
Simply put, the field of aging can no longer ignore climate change. Yet, older adults have been blamed for the climate crisis and therefore, they and their advocates have been effectively excluded from consideration as part of the solution. However, environmental injustices, rising temperatures and sea levels, and natural disasters are age-inclusive—it’s time that our policymaking for battling climate change is, too.
After multiple town halls, surveys and member-only events, ASA’s Public Policy Committee completed its policy agenda and launched it at On Aging 2022, ASA’s annual meeting. With respect to climate change, ASA will focus on three key areas: emphasizing older adults in health policy and environmental justice; expanding emergency preparedness, response, and recovery; and promoting volunteerism.
Emphasizing Older Adults in Health Policy and Environmental Justice
It has been 35 years since the seminal national study by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” which identified race as “the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the United States.” The study sparked a much-needed social justice movement looking at civil rights and the environment. While there is new research and some progress has been made, too often the impact of the environment (specifically climate change) on older adults is ignored.
Similarly, there is strong science that demonstrates all the ways in which climate change impacts the health of older adults. Recognizing this, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently established an office to address climate change and health at the national level, The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. But it remains to be seen how older adults or their advocates will be a part of this effort.
To be sure, a large body of research and policy solutions related to health and climate change at the intersection between race, gender, and the environment exists. However, generally absent from this important thinking is age. As a result, it is a challenge to find novel ideas to address the unique impacts of climate on older adults, particularly those from marginalized communities. That is why ASA believes we must begin to center older adults in climate change policymaking, particularly in health policy and environmental justice.
As one key study (Salas et al., 2020) recommends, there are a number of steps policymakers, healthcare systems, and companies can take when addressing the potential solutions, both short and long term, for mitigating the effects of climate change on human health and aging. ASA announced that it will champion:
- Supporting greater investments by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies to study the impact of climate change on older adults.
- Establishing transitional sheltering assistance for older adults who live in high-risk climate areas, such as areas with unhealthy air quality caused by wildfires.
- Investing in climate change training for the healthcare workforce, particularly as it relates to the well-being of older adults.
- Investing in building community mental health centers in geographies at high risk of climate-related stress and trauma.
- Identifying innovative climate-friendly solutions that also impact the social determinants of health, such as creating new urban greenery and cooling centers that would include accessible urban greenspace to combat social isolation, while also providing fresh air and reducing the effect of heat-islands.
- Investing in federal research and stronger data collection efforts related to older adults to comprehensively identify the demographic factors, environmental burdens, socioeconomic conditions, and public health concerns that are related to environmental justice and collect high-quality data through community engagement and a government-wide interagency process.
- Expanding existing land-use planning tools used by localities, states, and the federal government to ensure older adults are intentionally included in decisions related to comprehensive planning, eliminating nonconforming uses, using environmental reviews or impact analysis, and making change through local boards and commissions.
- Amending existing local, state, and federal definitions of stakeholders and cumulative impact to expressly include older adults and factors related to aging.
- Adopting more affirmative state and federal environmental justice regulations and prioritization policies; improving the transparency and accountability of environmental oversight boards; and harnessing economic incentives and capital.
Strengthening Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery
To some it may seem that the only time policy makers consider the impacts of climate change on older adults is in response to a natural disaster—and then, typically, it is too late. Local, state, and federal officials, with help from nonprofit agencies, maintain a response network for disaster events and shape the policies governing emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. However, the higher rates of death for older individuals in emergencies, along with the increase of these events due to climate change, requires preparedness, response, and recovery policies that emphasizes this population. ASA will champion:
- Amending existing federal legislation mandating the inclusion of older adults in preparedness and disaster policies.
- Requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to include older adult advocates on its advisory boards and commissions and mandate that localities do the same.
- Advocating for localities to implement a formal emergency preparedness plan specifically for older adults. This would mean leveraging existing age-friendly communities and Villages in a system to identify and publicize community service providers that can enter disaster areas and provide assistance, as well as one that maps out neighborhoods with a higher concentration of older residents, using public records.
- Investing in the energy and outdoor infrastructure of the United States to deploy new and innovative technologies, update existing infrastructure to be reliable and resilient, and secure energy infrastructure against physical and cyber threats, and for other purposes.
Promoting Volunteerism by Older Adults
Shifting demographics is driving increased volunteerism by older adults but so, too, is the desire for many to reimagine retirement. As Bill McKibben highlights in his article in this journal, these trends create an enormous opportunity for climate change advocacy by older adults. And science agrees.
‘ASA believes we must begin to center older adults in climate change policymaking, particularly in health policy and environmental justice.’
A literature review on the current state of environmental volunteerism found the primary motivations in older volunteers to be socialization, generativity, usefulness to others, and a pro-environmental reference. Any future policy needs to include these values and use them to create engagement. Yet, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that rates of environmental volunteerism were much lower among people ages 65 and older than other types of volunteering—with only 2% of older people volunteering for an environmental organization (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). That is why we need better policies that harness the benefits of volunteerism for older adults while increasing the number of participants in climate change initiatives. ASA will champion:
- Investing in a Civilian Climate Corps that centers older adults, by reviving a federal program started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create work and volunteer opportunities and using it to combat climate change.
- Expanding public sector support for late-life volunteerism, as the private sector currently fulfills a more active role in creating these opportunities. A significant expansion of programs such as the AmeriCorps Seniors is necessary, with environmental work as a priority.
- Presenting environmental volunteering as an option in pre-retirement programs.
- Ensuring green volunteer roles do not require high education or income levels. Potential ways to combat disparities include free transportation, compensation for qualified individuals, and reimbursement for travel and food costs.
- Encouraging innovative volunteer programs, such as a Cornell University pilot program called Retirees in Service to the Environment that created a partnership between an organization dedicated to environmental education and one devoted to serving older adults to teach environmental workshops and spur volunteering with an organization (see Karl Pillemer’s program description in his article in this journal).
It’s Not Too Late
While the field of aging may be a latecomer to the climate change discourse, we have an opportunity to harness our unique voices to drive change. ASA members and others can both protect older adults who are potential victims of climate change and champion those who are potential leaders of the climate action movement. Let’s grab our seat at the table.
Peter Kaldes is President and CEO of the American Society on Aging.
Photo: NYC climate protest, 2019.
Photo credit: Steve Sanchez Photos
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2014). Table 4. Volunteers by type of main organization for which volunteer activities were performed and selected characteristics, September 2015. Economic News Release. Retrieved June 1, 2022, from www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.t04.htm.
Gamble, J. L., et al. (2013). Climate Change and Older Americans: State of the Science. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/pdf/10.1289/ehp.1205223.
Salas, R. N., et al. (2020). Adding A Climate Lens To Health Policy in the United States. Health Affairs, 39(12). https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2020.01352