Older adults are an untapped resource of climate activism, according to a new edition of the Gerontological Society of America’s Public Policy and Aging Report.

The climate change-focused issue features a number of articles arguing the case for greater participation by those aged 60 and above in responding to climate change.

Papers range from those exploring the moral need for older people to act due to their disproportionate responsibility for climate change (might not go down so well), to those exploring barriers to participation.

Professor Michael Smyer, a civic innovation fellow at Stanford University, said the publication came at a crucial time in the climate debate.

“Older adults represent a growing and largely untapped resource on climate action,” he said.

“The articles represent a range of views about that resource and how to engage them.

It’s not an easy task, however. There’s been a range of studies that have shown older people care less about climate change than other age cohorts.

“These insights have led some to either deliberately or unconsciously write off older Americans in terms of targeted engagement,” Stanford University’s Dr Suzanne Moser said.

But climate change today threatens older people more than any other age group. Think the 2003 Paris heatwave that killed thousands of this demographic group, or the fact that more than 70 per cent of people who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina were older.

Older people should, and increasingly do, care about climate change, Smyer argues. They also have strong values around civic engagement and the time to contribute, so climate change organisations should not rule them out.

There are, however, barriers to participation in environmental activities that need to be resolved.

“By failing to engage the older population in [climate change] efforts, our society is missing one of the most potent weapons to address climate change and environmental sustainability issues more broadly,” Cornell University’s Dr Karl Pillemer and Dr David Filiberto argue.

“Older people, from the leading edge of the Baby Boom to people in their 80s and beyond, are eager to contribute to the greater good through civic engagement.”

They argue that the ageing of Baby Boomer is producing a vast number of retired people with high levels of education and skills that could be directed to environmental stewardship activities. However, environmental organisations are presently seen as a road block, with two-thirds surveyed failing to make any special accommodations for older people.

Recommended actions for environmental groups include:

  • Ensuring that the organisation’s location is accessible
  • Providing a range of volunteer jobs for people of different interests and physical abilities
  • Making provisions for transportation when needed
  • Offering daytime activities, given that some older people are reluctant to drive after dark
  • Recognising the heterogeneity of the older volunteer population such that “one-size-fits-all” approaches are unlikely to work, and a diversity of volunteer jobs is needed

Smyer said the authors did not see older adults solely as victims of climate change, but as potential leaders of climate action.

“The time is now for that action – those 60 and above have time, talent and a desire for a sense of purpose as they reap the benefits of their longevity bonus.”

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  1. I’m sure older adults care about the environment and climate change and want to help the cause.
    A note on language – take your lead from the quotes from the speakers. They did not use the word “elderly”. Please try to avoid this in the future. Elderly conjures up an homogenous group of helpless frail people and this does not typify the majority of people over the age of 60. Use Older People or Older Australians/Americans just as they have in the original article. You can be frail at any age.