Not us and them – The voice of older people in the climate crisis

By: Harry Curzon

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the urgency for policy to support the acute vulnerabilities we may face as we age, as well as highlighting the significance of coming together at all generations to tackle society’s big questions. This response is arguably required for another existential crisis facing global policymakers and individuals alike. 

Inadequately preparing to effectively mitigate the impacts of climate change could significantly impact on healthy ageing. It is estimated that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is going to lead to an additional 250,000 deaths per year from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea and heat stress. with associated health costs of 2-4 billion USD per year by 2030. 

As we age, we are more likely to be increasingly physically, financially and emotionally at risk of the impacts of climate change, including increases in severe weather events, infectious diseases and air pollution, largely due to changes in mobility, physiology. and restricted access to resources. Research carried out by the World Health Organization projects that heat exposure as a result of climate change is likely to lead to an extra 38,000 deaths for older people in 2030. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel report on climate change emphasised that only drastic changes in all aspects of society would be enough to reverse trends in increasing global warming. As world populations age, it will be essential to galvanise action on climate change from people of all generations, especially those most at risk. 

However, the debate on climate change is often held up as a narrative of intergenerational difference, with older people viewed as bringing high levels of consumption across their life course and being largely apathetic to the issues of climate change. However, contrary to this, a 2010 British attitudes survey found that 68 per cent of 55-65s are either very or fairly concerned about climate change. 

Policy discussions at an international and local level are often complicit in reinforcing this negative view by overlooking the increasing vulnerability towards climate change as we age and subsequently failing to incorporate older people into policy debates. For instance, the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 which set out targets to “promote prosperity while protecting the planet”, only mention older people twice.  

Seemingly, the lack of emphasis within policy materialises into older people’s own views, with this group more likely to believe that climate change won’t impact them and people more generally believing that climate change won’t negatively impact their health. For example, 61% of Americans have given little or no thought to how global warming might impact on people’s health

A lack of understanding and knowledge of climate change leads many people to feel they do not have the expertise to make a substantial contribution to environmental causes. This results in distinctive barriers to taking action on climate change, where environmental volunteerism is seen to decrease as we age in comparison to other areas of volunteerism. 

Older people in particular could be an invaluable resource of campaigners to tackle climate change issues. In order to inspire action on climate change across the life course, it is essential to cultivate a better understanding of the direct impacts of climate change within people and policy, whilst also enabling action on the climate at each stage of our lives. Tapping into people’s intergenerational solidarity and legacy thinking around leaving a clean planet for future generations have been identified as key levers in this. 

Examples of older climate activism exist throughout the world, but are often side-lined in public awareness by better known protests carried out by younger groups such as the youth climate school strikes. The campaign group Our children’s trust is an adult-run campaign group focussed on supporting young climate campaigners “to empower and support youth as they stand up for their lawful inheritance”. In the UK, a 91-year-old member of Extinction Rebellion (XR) was arrested for blocking roads near the port of Dover. Celebrating these examples can work to tackle unproductive stereotypes about older people’s views towards climate change and promote the importance of including the voice of older people in the climate debate. 

Incorporating older people into policy discussions from a grassroot to an international level can help to signify the urgency of climate changes impact on health as we age. Enabling older people to be part of the conversation can work to shape decision making so it reflects their needs and adequately addresses climate change issues we are presented with as we age.  

To truly tackle the climate emergency, we must ensure that climate change policy and activism works for older and younger people alike. We know that society is ageing and that climate change and its resulting effects bring considerable risks to an ageing population. How we respond to this issue will define us for generations. 

Over the coming months, we are planning further work on climate change and longevity. One session at this year’s Future of Ageing conference will also explore how older and younger people can work together to address the climate emergency.

Harry Curzon

Harry Curzon was previously Policy and Communications Assistant at ILC, supporting the ILC’s busy policy and communications agenda. He has a particular interest in disability and intersectionality.