When gray turns green

With global aging and global warming, we’re getting older as we’re getting warmer. It is now time to connect the two, says Mick Smyer

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When gray turns green

With global aging and global warming, we’re getting older as we’re getting warmer. It is now time to connect the two, says Mick Smyer

Robert Redford and the Pope have more in common than one might think. Both in their late 70s and keen to talk about climate change, they combine aspects of green and gray thinking.

Older people are often more interested in environmental issues than their younger counterparts. One reason is the fact that our sense of time changes. Once we reach midlife, it focuses not on time passed but the length of time remaining, according to research by Laura Carstensen (Stanford Center on Longevity). This has older adults thinking more about their legacy and future generations, a fact that makes the elderly natural supporters of climate friendly policies, argues Mick Smyer, professor of psychology at Bucknell University (Pennsylvania) and founder of Graying Green: Climate Action for an Aging World. And they should be: Research finds them to be more affected by a warming climate.

What’s more, older adults in developed nations are also more politically active: about half (49%) of those aged 85 in the US voted in the presidential election, while 62% voted in, according to Age and the American electorate. Meanwhile, younger voters are less active. For instance, nearly half (48%) voted in, while just 33% voted, the study found. Combined with their rising numbers in countries like Germany, but also the US and many Asian nations, this will give older citizens more clout with their political leaders.

According to Smyer, a noted expert on aging, this opens up a new venue to implement climate change policies even in societies as skeptical as the US. President Obama and other leaders should tap into this demographic, Smyer suggests. “If the world leadership needs to move on climate change, then older adults could and should be part of the mobilization of popular support for some very tough policy decisions we face in the world as a whole,” Smyer told PROJECT M.


Why should the older generation not simply sneak away from the mess, grateful that they will likely escape the worst repercussions of climate change in their lifetime?

It boils down to genetics. From a developmental standpoint, older adults are designed to think about their legacy and try and save the planet for future generations, notably their children and grandchildren. “From an evolutionary perspective, you could say they are worried about their gene pool,” says Smyer.

Obama’s State of the Union address showed that he too is not immune to legacy concerns. In his speech, the President called climate change the greatest threat to future generations; a comment possibly prompted by his advancing years and approaching end of term of office, surmises Smyer. “Obama is a man in his late 50s so as a developmental psychologist I can tell you he’s right on schedule for starting to think about legacy issues, about future generations and about what comes after him.”

The issue is hardly clear-cut. Identifying “six Americas” when it comes to climate change, a study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication grouped respondents into those who are Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful and Dismissive about climate change. Contrary to Smyer’s argument that older people are more interested in environmental issues, the report finds that those 60 and older are over-represented among the Doubtful and Dismissive. On the other hand: Two-thirds of older adults, the majority, are not in those categories. Rather, they are optimistic or neutral regarding climate change.


Yet older people are especially vulnerable to the adverse health consequences brought by severe weather conditions. Indeed, they “are more sensitive to changes in the environment and exposure to toxins, noxious agents and infectious agents. This greater sensitivity is a by-product of a lower physiological reserve capacity, slower metabolism, and a more slowly responding immune system. They also have a higher disease burden (morbidity) than people at younger ages. The cumulative effect of this increased disease burden makes specific organ systems less able to tolerate stress,” state Bruce A. Carnes, David Staats and Bradley J. Willcox in Impact of Climate Change on Elder Health.

Statistics show how badly severe weather has a bearing on the elderly: older adults were the one group disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina. Of those who died as a result of Katrina, 74% were aged 60 or older, while nearly half were older than 75.

The severe heatwave of the summer of in Chicago also bears witness to the elderly’s vulnerability: of the 700 Chicago residents who died during the heatwave, 73% were aged 60 or above, reports the Gerontological Society of America in its spring Public Policy & Aging Report. Unless we act fast, elevated temperatures from urban heat islands are set to compromise the health of more of the elderly in future.

According to the Risky Business studies, which explore the economic risks of climate change in the US, by the end of the century the average number of extremely hot days in the Southeast of the US and Texas, temperatures above 95°F (35°C) will likely increase by as much as 14 times from nine days to as many as 124 days per year.

And it’s not just the US. In the next 40 years, we are 5 to 10 times more likely to experience more mega heatwaves, such as the one in July and August across Russia killing 50,000 people and the heatwave killing tens of thousands in western Europe, says an international research team led by David Barriopedro of the Instituto Dom Luiz at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.The needs and vulnerabilities of older adults need to be included in any plans to adapt to climate change, before it is too late.

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