Sandy is a 68-year-old anthropologist. When I first talked to her about climate change, I thought it might be a quick conversation.

“How concerned are you about climate change?”

“I’m not.”

“Why not?”

“It’s an after-I’m-gone problem.”

An after-I’m-gone-problem. That phrase sounded familiar.

“It’s wonderful not caring about climate change.” “I’ll be long gone.” “It’s an after-I’m-dead problem.”

Actors Cloris Leachman, Bill Cobbs, and Ed Asner sure get your attention in “Old People Don’t Care About Climate Change,” a video making the rounds on Funny or Die.

The satire is good, but the reality is better. Climate change is one issue that unites generations and cuts across party lines.

Like all good humor, the video clip works because of content and timing: It plays upon stereotypes of greedy geezers, and it assumes that we have all the time in the world to solve the problems. Neither is accurate.

And Sandy’s self-proclaimed lack of concern wasn’t accurate either: She spends each summer in Haiti, learning from villagers how to “live lightly on the earth,” while coping with her own sense that there is not much she, a single individual, can do to change the direction of climate change.

In this article, I will frame why we need to focus more attention on an important and growing resource, older adults, to help respond to a pressing and growing problem, climate change. Along the way, I’ll briefly review data on the growing consensus on the need for action, why the next few years are especially important, and strategies for moving older adults from anxiety to action on climate change.

Intergenerational Agreement

According to the Pew Research Center (2016), 69% of Americans say that global climate change is harming people now or will harm people around the world within a few years. Two-thirds of Pew’s respondents acknowledge that people will have to make major lifestyle changes to reduce the effects of climate change.

Similarly, overall 69% of Americans endorse limiting our country’s greenhouse gas emissions, ranging from 85% of those aged 18–20 to 69% of those aged 30–49, and 60% of those aged 50 and older. In short, a majority of all age groups recognize that climate change is real and endorse specific actions for responding.

Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) has divided the American population into “six Americas” or audience segments, depending upon their belief in scientific findings, their level of concern about climate change, and their certainty of belief (Roser-Renouf et al., 2015). YPCCC also reports that more than half of Americans (57%) are “very” or “somewhat” worried about global warming, with significant levels of climate concern across generations. For example, in a recent YPCCC survey, 45% of Baby Boomers are alarmed or concerned about climate change, compared with 35% of Millennials.

So far, however, climate scientists and climate communicators have overlooked those aged older than 35. For example, the Department of State’s most recent U.S. Climate Action Report, which integrated efforts across 13 federal agencies, highlighted K–12 and college education efforts, mentioning adult outreach efforts under the general category of “informal education” at zoos, museums, and other venues with no mention of our country’s older adults. Private philanthropists are also focused on the younger demographic. Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action, for example, targets college-aged voters, although their own blog recently acknowledged that “these young voters don’t always make it to the polls.”

Bipartisan Agreement

When it comes to political parties, there is also a strong consensus. The YPCCC and George Mason University recently found that three in four registered voters now think global warming is happening. Large majorities of liberal Democrats (95%) and moderate/conservative Democrats (80%) endorse this view. More important, however, a strong majority of liberal/moderate Republicans (71%) agree, and nearly half (47%) of conservative Republicans think global warming is happening.

And voters clearly want leaders who will take action on the climate threat. According to the YPCCC/George Mason study, registered voters are four times more likely to vote against a candidate who opposes action on global warming (45%), than to vote for them (11%), meaning there’s far more upside than liability for candidates who champion climate change action.

In fact, strong majorities favor specific actions: funding more research into renewable energy sources (84% of all registered voters); providing tax rebates for buying energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (81%); regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (75%); setting strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants (70%); and requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax that would reduce other taxes by an equal amount (68%).

Timing Is Everything

In satire, timing is crucial. And the same goes for climate change action.

But timing is also important on a personal scale. Psychologically, older adults prioritize issues differently. According to Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, at midlife our sense of time shifts: We start to focus on time left to live, rather than how much time has passed (Carstenson, 2006). Maybe that’s why older adults indicate a serious concern about climate change and its impact.

Timing is especially important for the Baby Boomer generation. With the leading edge of the Boomers turning 70 this year, their generation is reaping the benefits of the longevity bonus: added years of health, resources, and a concern for their legacy.

Timing is also important in terms of global demographics. There are currently almost 1 billion people aged 60 and older in the world; estimates are that this group will grow to 2 billion by midcentury and perhaps 3 billion by century’s end (United Nations, 2015). Many countries, notably China and Brazil, will be simultaneously coping with the challenges of an aging population and societal sustainability for the rest of this century.

Research has shown that the pace of climate change is faster than previously predicted. The time for action is already here. For all of these reasons, the time is perfect to tap into this growing and important resource for climate action: older adults. But how?

Keep it Short, Social, and Positive

Will Rogers once quipped, “Peoples’ minds are changed through observation and not through argument.”

Dr. Susanne Moser’s recent work in Marin County (described later in more detail in this issue) is a perfect example. She used a view finder on a public path to illustrate the impacts of different rates of sea level change on familiar scenes in Marin County. She asked people to look at the finder to see the current scene and the impacts of 1 foot and 3 feet of sea level rise. This small step had a big impact on citizens’ level of concern, willingness to act, and preferences for next steps in adapting to climate change.

Dr. Moser’s work embodies three themes that the National Academy of Sciences (2011) highlighted for younger audiences: Keep it short, social, and positive. Focus on a time frame of the next 50 years; focus on the impacts of climate change in areas that people have an emotional connection to; and emphasize action steps or “things that people can do.”

These lessons aren’t only effective with younger audiences. They are the keys to success with another important demographic: those aged 60 and older.

Psychologists have found that humans are not wired to link our carbon footprint (or any footprint!) 10,000 years from now to specific, current actions (Lieberman & Trope, 2008). Some have suggested that we can envision at most four generations out. Thus the timing of our appeal must be a short time frame, perhaps best linked to impacts on generations already here or ready to appear.

“How do you want to be remembered?

What do you want your legacy to be?”

Psychologists Evan Markowotiz, Lisa Zaval, and Elke Weber (2015) have suggested that they can accelerate the pace of climate action by asking these simple questions. Using an online survey, they found that asking people to write on these questions was associated with greater concern about climate, greater willingness to take action on climate change, and greater action (as measured by willingness to contribute participation fees to a reforestation project). There was one shortcoming of their innovative work, however: The average age of their sample was 37, well below the age at which legacy thinking and generativity might be expected to be major concerns. We are now working to replicate and extend their research to include a larger sample of older adults and a robust age comparison of the effects of legacy thinking on climate belief and action.

Scott Russell Sanders, an emeritus professor of English at Indiana University, wrote a compelling letter to his grandchildren (Sanders, 2010). In it, he both looked back and he looked ahead. He recalled the sights, smells, and sensations of where he grew up, and he described what he hoped the place would be like for his grandchildren in the future. Sanders’s essay epitomizes the social element, anchoring his environmental concerns in a place that holds special meaning for him and with people that he cherishes.

Building on Sanders’s essay, I have asked audiences large and small the following set of questions:

Is there someplace that holds special meaning for you?

Can you imagine the impact of extreme weather or climate change events on that place?

Can you imagine what you would like that place to look like for your children or grandchildren?

What could you do now to make that vision come true?

In talking with more than 200 people aged 18 to more than 80 years, only a couple of people said that there was no place with special meaning to them. These questions are aimed at anchoring the discussion of climate change and climate action to places and people that matter to those with whom I’m talking. They also offer a starting point for intergenerational discussions on climate change and climate action.

The third element of the trio—positive—is also important. For older adults, positive may have two elements. Psychologists have documented older adults’ tendency to prefer positive over negative information as they scan the information environment, a preference deemed the “positivity effect” (Reed & Carstensen, 2012; Reed, Chan, & Mikels, 2014).

But positive also has another meaning: Client communication for audiences of all ages must include actions that individuals can take. Fortunately, there are several web resources that provide action steps, such as the EPA (https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/), the Natural Resource Defense Council (https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-you-can-stop-global-warming), and the Union of Concerned Sciences (http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/what_you_can_do/ten-personal-solutions-to.html#.V94jgSMrIxc). Other resources have focused on the financial aspects of renewable energy and the choices that homeowners and renters can make in their daily lives (e.g., Keane, 2012) or the link between an individual’s food choices and sustainability (e.g., Stec & Cordero, 2008).

With the help of the Civic Innovation fellowship program at Stanford’s design school, I have been exploring older adults’ perceptions of these individual actions and their impact on climate change:

Kathy is a recently retired science librarian. Her husband is an atmospheric scientist. When I asked her how concerned she was about climate change, she replied simply: “Very concerned.” I gave her 15 cards, each with an individual climate action on it (e.g., wash clothes in cold water; use a programmable thermostat; insulate your water heater; etc.). Kathy sorted the cards into two piles based on her own categories: those she does and those she should do. She and her husband do 11 of the 15. After the sorting, she reflected: “I am not an activist. I am active, but not an activist.”

Kathy is a good example of the important resource that older adults can play in their families, communities, and countries. Whether they are comfortable with the “activist” label, they are clearly active in ways big and small on climate action. Gary Haq’s article later in this special edition offers a useful framework for considering their contributions and accelerating the actions and activism of older adults.

The “Threat Multiplier” of Climate Change and Developmental Psychology

The U.S. Department of Defense (2014) labels climate change a “threat multiplier.” Although the Department of Defense was thinking of strategic military threats, the concept of threat multiplier usefully applies to both threats to individual health and mental health and to the ongoing developmental tasks of later life.

A recent report by the U.S. Global Climate Research Program (2016) noted that climate change may have significant health and mental health impacts in two main ways: by changing the frequency and severity of problems and by creating new, unprecedented health threats. The report highlighted older adults as a population of special concern because of the interaction of certain preexisting medical conditions, functional or cognitive limitations, and greater sensitivity to heat extremes and extreme weather or climate impacts. For example, extreme heat events can adversely affect those already afflicted with diabetes or congestive heart failure. Similarly, those who are taking psychotropic medications may be at risk for poorer thermoregulation in heat waves. Degraded air quality can exacerbate underlying conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma; and vector-borne diseases could attack those with compromised immune systems. For all of these reasons, those who work with and for older adults need to be concerned about their well-being in a time of climate change and challenge. (Gary Haq’s article in this issue expands on older adults’ vulnerability.)

Older adults bring a variety of skills and experiences to the late-life challenges of climate change. Erik Erikson and his colleagues (Erikson, Erikson, & Kivnick, 1994) suggested that developmental tasks across the lifespan represent an interaction of the social and physical context with the individual’s own growth and development. Optimally, the social structures provide opportunities and challenges that are congruent with the individual’s own concerns.

Erikson and his colleagues suggest that a major developmental task for older adults is continuing “vital involvement,” responding to the challenges that the physical and social environment present (Erikson, et al. 1994; Wyatt-Brown, Karpen, & Kivnick, 2016). Psychologist Helen Kivnick recently described this psychological work:

It’s not just that we need to revisit those issues that were problematic when we dealt with them the first time. It’s ALSO that we are always revisiting, renewing, and updating in age-appropriate ways multiple issues that were fine when they initially arose, but that aren’t working as well for us now, as they did, at earlier times. Vital Involvement isn’t prescribed on an annual schedule, or catalyzed by tradition or ritual… it [i]s a built-in mechanism for ongoing psychosocial growth, healing…

(H. Q. Kivnick, personal communication, October 1, 2016).

For today’s older adults, one context for this developmental work is their response to the challenges of climate change, whether it’s a personal challenge of health or mental health or a family and community challenge of adaptation to already-evident climate impacts. This means that the National Academy of Sciences might add another element to its climate communication checklist to get more older adults involved in climate action: short, social, positive, and developmentally relevant.

Next Steps

It is time to leverage the experience and expertise of older adults to respond more effectively to climate change. To do this, however, requires both communities—gerontology and climate change—to see the value of working at the intersection of climate change and aging. Some argue that older adults are not concerned about climate and we need to focus exclusively on K–12 and millennial audiences. Others argue that we should not start with adaptation strategies (adapting to already-existing climate change) but should instead opt to focus on mitigation (trying to prevent further underlying change).

Older adults offer an important and growing resource at a time that our communities, nation, and the world need all the help they can get. They have indicated a clear level of concern and a willingness to take action. Our job is to help communicate effective strategies to them. Our job is to keep it short, social, positive, and developmentally relevant.

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Author notes

* Address correspondence to Michael A. Smyer, PhD, Civic Innovation Fellow, Hasso Plattner School of Design, Stanford University, CA. E-mail: mick@dschool.stanford.edu.
Decision Editor: Robert B. Hudson, PhD

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