Due to decades of increased greenhouse gas emissions, average temperatures are rising globally. According to Climate.gov, Earth’s temperature has risen by .14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1880, with the rate of warming more than doubling each decade since 1981. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that in the U.S., the average surface temperature across the contiguous 48 states has risen at an average rate of .17 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1901, with average temperatures rising more quickly since the late 1970s (.32–.55 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1979.)
Luke Parsons, a postdoctoral associate at Duke University with a Ph.D in geosciences, explained that warming isn’t the only problem. Climate variability, or how much your day-to-day weather varies compared to what’s expected, directly and disproportionately affects vulnerable populations like older adults. “Climate variability is important, particularly for vulnerable populations like older adults … They can have negative effects if it’s particularly hot outside,” said Parsons. “On top of your year to year up and down in weather or climate, it’s now, on average, hotter than it was 100 years ago.”
We’re seeing increases in extreme weather events, which are examples of variability attributable to global warming and the melting of polar ice caps. Also a result of polar melting, sea level rise is allowing devastating flooding to hit coastal communities, as well as communities farther inland that haven’t experienced flooding in previous decades and centuries. Other impacts of climate change and variability include drought and heat waves. Because older adults often lack resources due to economic- or health-related reasons, they are directly affected by climate change threatening the availability of basic necessities like food and water.
How Do Older Adults Feel About Climate Change?
The topic of climate change has been on the radar for a while now, but older adults appear to be a bit behind their younger counterparts when it comes to their level of concern and action. A 2021 survey examining generational attitudes towards climate change revealed that 57% of adults born prior to 1965 believe that climate and sustainability should be a top priority, compared with 63% of Gen X, 71% of Millenial, and 67% of Gen Z respondents.
A similar study conducted between 2015 and 2018 showed that while 76% of respondents aged 55 and older believe they understand the issue of global warming very well or fairly well, only 29% believe that global warming and climate change will cause serious problems in their lifetimes.
So why the generational disagreement? “Hardly anyone comes to the issue of climate change as a blank slate,” explained Julia Rosen, a science and environmental journalist with a Ph.D in geology. “Everyone has preconceived notions about it, and so when you talk to people about it they are seeing it through the filters of what they already believe.” Older generations have lived through the beginning of mainstream media coverage of climate change, which started slowly in the 1950s and didn’t increase steadily or significantly until the 1980s. “[Climate change] has historically been seen as sort of a far away problem, both in distance and in time,” said Rosen, making it seem like it’s not an urgent issue.
Reinforcing this “filter,” older adults have also been subjected to the majority of disinformation campaigns put out by companies contributing significantly to the problem by burning fossil fuels. Rosen described these campaigns as focusing on select pieces of information in an attempt to debunk the concept of climate change as a whole. “One of the things I have found as a scientist and as a journalist is that often people who are skeptical will fixate on one piece of data,” she said, explaining that older adults, and people in general, have likely internalized the fixated arguments they’ve heard and have trouble seeing the issue with a wider lens.
“The thing that is really important to understand is that there are so many ways that we see evidence of long-term warming that is not dependent on any single technology,” said Rosen. “We see it in ice cores and sediment cores, and cave records and tree rings, and we see it in multiple chemical signatures in those archives. The basic physics of why putting greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere warms the planet has been known for a century … There’s really no question about the fundamental science here.”
While the data does show that older adults are less likely to prioritize climate change issues than younger generations, 57% is a solid foundation of older adults who are concerned. Many have seen dramatic changes in their lifetimes, and for people like 70-year-old world traveler, adventure athlete, and author Julia Hubbel, those changes are proof of a global emergency. “[Climate change] is the most pressing issue of our time,” said Hubbel. “The world is shifting, and too many of us don’t realize that we are facing mass die-offs, and already the migrations pushed by drought in Africa are putting huge pressure on Europe. It’s only going to get worse.” People like Hubbel lend a strong voice to their generation, suggesting that older adults can be a powerful force in fighting climate change.
Effects of Climate Change on Older Adults
Aside from science and raw data, how do we know that climate change is already affecting older adults? Most of the effects are a direct result of extreme weather conditions that are caused by global warming and climate change. “What has changed a lot of people’s minds [regarding the effects of climate change] is the weather extremes that we’ve experienced in recent years,” said Charles Kolstad, a professor of economics at Stanford University and a contributor to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Even though weather is constantly fluctuating, people are attributing a lot of that to climate change. People are actually starting to see it.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released an extensive report of weather and climate disasters since 1980, where the overall cost of damage from each disaster has totaled over $1 billion. The data shows an upward trend across the board—since 1980, the average number of extreme weather events has increased along with the average cost per year and the average related deaths per year.