Nobody should be facing the climate crisis alone

Unfortunately, the elderly are often alone and vulnerable

THOUGH THE FINAL death toll from the wildfire in Maui, which was worsened if not caused by the changing climateis still uncertain, it is already apparent that many victims were over 65. Climate activists, myself included, often say that we are motivated to act by the desire to protect our children and (eventual) grandchildren from future climate chaos. But we already know that heatwaves pose a particular threat for older populations. And as unrelenting extreme weather chases unrelenting extreme weather in our very present, the most vulnerable populations often turn out to be the elderly. This should influence not only how and with whom we talk about climate change, but also what we talk about.

350 Mass Metrowest, our local climate activist group which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, discussed our theory of change at a recent gathering: What are we trying to achieve, and how do we plan to achieve it? Is it working? Do we need to adjust how we do things?

We began by listing our achievements over the past 10 years. Together with our fellow climate activists across Massachusetts we have worked hard to get climate legislation passed. We protested and marched, we petitioned, we stood vigil. We educated each other and many around us about decarbonization, and also about how racial and climate justice must go hand in hand. Most importantly, we built a close community of friends who have each other’s back. It may not be what brought us to the climate movement initially, but as wildfires, storms, and floods are raging around us, we realize that this last aspect is turning out to be the most significant. Nobody should be facing the climate crisis alone.

Unfortunately, older people are much more likely to live alone. At the time of the 2020 census, one in six people was over 65. And 27 percent of people over 60 in the United States live alone. That in itself is dangerous, as recent studies have shown. But, as in many other instances, climate change is a threat multiplier here as well. And this will only become a bigger problem in the years ahead. According to demographic trends, the population of older Americans is growing. To be sure, we are also healthier and simply live longer than decades ago. But the older we get, the more likely we will need support, especially during extreme weather events.

Older Americans are also disproportionally female, and the Pew Research Center found that “despite the narrowing of the gender gap in older adults living alone, men remain about half as likely as women to live alone today.”  Which means the climate movement must pay particular attention to elderly women who are living alone.

What’s needed is a new kind of “neighborhood watch,” where neighbors make deliberate efforts to get to know each other – not just for a friendly wave across the fence or from one door to the next. But getting to know each other to the point where we exchange phone numbers and feel comfortable calling on each other and knowing about the other’s needs. If I know my neighbor does not have family nearby or is in need of insulin, I can be a better neighbor in an emergency. 

When Bill McKibben launched Third Act, the climate movement for people over 60, he spoke of the voting and financial power, but also the responsibility of those over 60, as he asked people to get involved. I greatly enjoy working with Third Act activists, and I applaud them for taking up the cause. They may not have thought about it when they first got involved – but joining the group may literally help keep them alive. Making those kinds of social connections will be crucial to survive extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Unfortunately, people over 65 also include the highest percentage of those who do not want to accept the scientific consensus on climate change. It’s high time, therefore, for grandchildren to sit down their grandparents and have “the talk.”

“No, grandpa, we won’t be talking about me and sex and drugs. It’s time for you to face the climate emergency.”

“Yes, we know the climate changes naturally. But this is no longer natural – it’s human caused.”

“Yes, carbon dioxide can give life – but in this case it is a pollutant.”

“No, climate action is not a government take-over, it’s going to make you safer and help keep you alive. And yes, I also need you to vote for climate champions so I have a chance at a livable future.” 

If you don’t have grandparents to talk to, get to know your neighbors! Invite them for tea! Have a street party! And while you’re at it: Talk about what you can do – both individually and collectively – to address the climate crisis! Who knows, they might know about a climate activist group near you that you could check out together! 

Sabine von Mering is a 2023 Public Voices Fellow on the Climate Crisis with The OpEd Project, in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication; a climate activist with 350MAss; and the director of the Center for German and European Studies at Brandeis University.