Formerly IGSW News | VOLUME 23 | WINTER–SPRING 2016

Issues and Views

In my opinion:

Older Adults Can Be Part of the Solution
To Challenges from Climate Change

In light of the landmark World Climate Change Conference of 2015 and the resulting Paris Agreement forged two months ago, as well as the Supreme Court's recent action staying the President's clean power plan, The LearningEdge asked Kathy Sykes, senior advisor for aging and sustainability for the U.S. EPA's Office of Research and Development, to bring us up to date about the connection between population aging and the environment.—Ed.

By Kathy Sykes

Recent events like the World Climate Change Conference (also known as COP 21) have captured our attention, but they are only the latest chapter in a long story. Forty-five years ago, on April 22, 1970, teach-ins took place across the country to highlight concerns about the environment. At the time, the impact of climate change was not understood. But we know now that our Earth and our well-being were—and continue to be— threatened by the impacts of climate change. The prestigious journal The Lancet stated that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has said that in a world of looming challenges and increasingly limited resources, climate change is destroying our path to sustainability. The effects of climate change are so serious and long lasting that it is not only a critical issue today, but will persist for generations to come.

At greatest risk. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC Fourth Assessment Report], those most at risk include older adults, children, urban poor, traditional societies, subsistence farmers, and coastal populations. The Panel's report also noted the irony that those who have contributed the least to climate change are paying the heaviest price.

We know heat waves are occurring more frequently and lasting longer, threatening the lives of elders and those with mobility issues. Who can forget Chicago's heat wave in the summer of 1995, which took the lives of 739 persons, mostly poor elders who could not afford air conditioning. Do you remember what happened eight years later in France, when almost 15,000 persons, mostly elders, died during a sweltering heat wave? Extreme weather events, or "weird weather," often describes the impacts of climate change, including droughts, heavy rainfall and coastal flooding. The effects of climate change, such as heat waves or flooding, can also trigger anxiety and depression. Psychological episodes can be longer lasting and worse than the physical effects following extreme weather events. Mobility issues, transportation limitations, and living without air conditioning all present challenges to care for those who are at greatest risk.

And the number at risk from climate change is rising: In 2012, there were about 43 million persons age 65 and older in the U.S. Primarily due to aging baby boomers, the U.S. Census projects that by 2050, this elder population will grow to more than 83 million.

Not only are older people more vulnerable, but population aging does itself pose threats to the environment. For example, older adults use a major proportion of the pharmaceuticals and care products that cause serious environmental damage when they are flushed down the toilet and not disposed of properly.

Part of the solution. With climate change we need to have all hands on deck to tackle reducing emissions—"mitigation" in the lexicon of climate change scientists—and preparing our cities to take these big hits from extreme weather events—"adaptation." Older people can be an important part of the solution to climate change. For example, they are likely to have more spare time and are often eager to "give back." Below are a number of ways, large and small, that older adults are already contributing. We are counting on them.

Ways Older Adults Can Work Against Climate Change

  • Volunteer with organizations that are already working to address climate change including but not limited to Gray Is Green, the Conscious Elders Network, Suzuki Elders and Graying Green.

  • Educate and inform local planners and elected officials about the importance of ensuring climate change is addressed and incorporated into the local master and regional plans.

  • Reduce personal global footprint.

  • Take time to educate younger generations about climate change and take local action.

Kathy Sykes is senior advisor for aging and sustainability, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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