Older Adults and Climate Change

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

Climate change is a global phenomenon that has been making headlines for decades. Arguably one of the most hotly debated issues in modern society, we now know that climate change is not just an abstract concept. Climate change is a heavy topic, one that is regarded and understood differently across nations, communities, and generations. 

AgingInPlace.org is committed to providing clarity around larger social issues that impact our readers. To do so, we hosted a virtual panel discussion regarding climate change and older adults in October 2022. This panel discussion, organized and moderated by Zeke Harker, a PR associate with AgingInPlace.org, gathered some of the most respected names in climate change research to share their knowledge and advice.

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.

Events per year7.9 avg
Cost per year$53.4 billion avg
Deaths per year365 avg
Events per year20
Cost per year$152.6 billion avg
Deaths per year724 avg
Events per year18.7 avg
Cost per year$105.1 billion avg
Deaths per year343 avg
Events per year12.8 avg
Cost per year$91.9 billion avg
Deaths per year523 avg
Events per year6.7 avg
Cost per year$57.6 billion avg
Deaths per year310 avg
Events per year5.5 avg
Cost per year$30.8 billion avg
Deaths per year306 avg
Events per year3.1 avg
Cost per year$20.2 billion avg
Deaths per year297 avg

Source: U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters | NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (2022)

To relate to older adults specifically, we can look at data in the five states with the highest population percentages of adults age 65 and over: Maine, Florida, West Virginia, Vermont, and Delaware.

Population age 65 and over (in thousands)294
Older adults percentage of total population21.8%
Number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 198014
Most common disaster typeWinter Storm
Population age 65 and over (in thousands)4,638
Older adults percentage of total population21.3%
Number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 198074
Most common disaster typeTropical cyclone
West Virginia
Population age 65 and over (in thousands)374
Older adults percentage of total population20.9%
Number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 198040
Most common disaster typeSevere storm
Population age 65 and over (in thousands)129
Older adults percentage of total population20.6%
Number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 198015
Most common disaster typeWinter storm
Population age 65 and over (in thousands)198
Older adults percentage of total population20.0%
Number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 198031
Most common disaster typeWinter storm

Source: Which States Have the Oldest Populations? |  Population Reference Bureau: Population Bulletin (2021)

With climate change becoming more apparent through increased extreme weather events, Kolstad and other experts agreed that the primary areas of concern for older adults are health, finances, and their generational legacy.


The health issues affecting older adults as a direct result of climate change can be attributed to dangerous weather events, air quality, and more frequent heat waves. Dangerous weather includes events like flooding, wildfires, and destructive winds from hurricanes and tornadoes. Older adults are disproportionately susceptible to injury or death from these events due to lack of resources, lack of mobility, and existing health concerns. “We see it across the board with climate change that people with the fewest resources are hit the hardest,” said Rosen.

Older adults may have little or no family available for help in the event of an emergency or natural disaster, fewer financial resources to facilitate relocation, and often are physically incapable of evacuating or quickly escaping dangerous conditions. Those who rely on tools like medical alert systems for safety at home may not have any other resources and are at a physical disadvantage while waiting for overwhelmed emergency services during natural disasters and extreme weather events. 

“We know that 80% of older adults have at least one chronic disease, and when we think about extreme weather events, there is a lack of access to health care and there is a lack of access to just normal activities of daily living for older adults, like being able to get Meals on Wheels or take public transportation to access health care,” said Sue Anne Bell, a board-certified nurse practitioner and expert on the human health effects of extreme weather events.

Even with support, assistance from family or friends, and access to health care, the manifestations of climate change can have negative effects on the health of older adults. During our climate change panel, experts agreed that heat waves pose a distinct threat to older adults. “If you look at the data of these heat waves, older people make up the majority of the fatalities,” said Rosen. 

Kolstad agreed: “[During heat waves,] older seniors, especially those in poor health, are the first to go,” he said.

In fact, Harvard Medical School reported that more than 80% of heat-related fatalities each year are adults over age 60. This number is particularly concerning considering that, in the United States, the average number of annual heat waves has increased from two in the 1960s to over six per year by 2020. With this increased frequency, it is reasonable to expect a continued and dramatic increase in older adult fatalities.

“Age-related changes in skin are a big reason why this is the case,” said Christopher Norman, a geriatric nurse practitioner, gerontologist, and advanced practice holistic nurse at PACE CNY.  “As we age, most of us know that we get more wrinkled. We get more wrinkled because of a gradual loss of subcutaneous fat (the layer of fat we have under our skin). As a result of this loss, and though we don’t sweat as much when we get older, we still evaporate water through our skin at greater rates, which affects body hydration and temperature regulation. This is why many older people feel cold all the time. In hotter temperatures, for these same reasons, older people are that much more likely to overheat and experience heat-related injuries, including death.”

The other primary health concern for many older adults should be air quality, particularly in terms of smoke from increased frequency of wildfires—a projected 14% increase by 2030. A 2015 report in the Journal of Thoracic Disease showed that particulate matter like smoke, dust, and soot in the air is linked to cardiopulmonary and respiratory-related deaths, as well as increased symptoms and hospitalizations for respiratory diseases, in older adults. Perhaps more importantly, the report clarified that exposure doesn’t need to be long-term in order to be deadly, stating that “there is strong evidence of an association between short-term exposure to air pollutants and respiratory morbidity in the elderly.” 

Considering that over 21% of adults over age 65 are diagnosed with coronary heart disease and/or stroke, and about 20% of adults over age 65 suffer from COPD and/or asthma, air quality decline from wildfires alone poses a significant and immediate threat to a large percentage of older adults. The fine particles in wildfire smoke are respiratory irritants, and inhaling them can reduce lung function, cause irritation like coughing and wheezing, and reduce the body’s ability to remove viruses and bacteria from the lungs potentially resulting in lung infections. 

Even so, comprehending air quality as a threat to older adults is tricky. While extreme weather events that cause obvious damage like flooding are visible and immediately evident, the impact of wildfires and the resulting air quality is only apparent in the near vicinity of the fire. But Rosen explained that smoke and particulate matter from fires can exist at damaging levels across the country, if not farther. “People think it’s a hazy day, and think nothing of it,” Rosen said. In this case, older adults living farther from fire events may even be more affected, as they aren’t taking measures to protect themselves. Fine particulate matter from wildfire smoke can travel hundreds to even thousands of miles depending on air currents and weather conditions, and even small concentrations can affect those with existing lung or heart conditions.


Although the health effects can still seem intangible to some, the economical impact of climate change on older adults is more straightforward and immediate. For example, air conditioning setups and electrical bills are increasing due to overall warming and heat waves, repairing damage from flooding and heavy rain events can be pricey, and health care costs will climb for people with new or pre-existing conditions exacerbated by climate fluctuations. 

Kolstad emphasized the importance of addressing the issue of climate change now, because the longer we wait and the worse it gets, the more expensive it will be to remedy. “The poor and people on fixed incomes are [going to be] less capable of making those changes,” he said. Besides the costs mentioned previously, general costs of living will continue to increase and put added strain on the finances of older adults. More extreme climate fluctuations are bound to negatively affect crops, making food less available and more expensive. CNN reported that global food prices have increased by 31%, citing extreme weather as one of the factors causing supply shortages. 

Insurance is another cost many older adults need to account for, and it’s one that has seen dramatic increases as a direct result of climate change. From 2021 to 2022, policy premiums rose an average of 12.1% across the U.S., with even higher increases in areas more susceptible to natural disasters. This increase isn’t expected to stop any time soon, and policy premiums are predicted to continue increasing by another 5.3% each year. For older adults with little flexibility in their finances, this increase could be stressful, if not financially debilitating.

Generational Legacy

Even with glaring evidence of the negative impact of climate change on older adults, there will still be plenty who struggle to make the connection between the effects of climate change, their own lives, and why it matters. In this case the most important question to ask may be: “What am I leaving behind?” Though the specifics are uncertain, the fact that our actions today will shape what the world looks like in decades to come is irrefutable. 

John Walsh, chief scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, warned that while some older adults may not feel the impact directly, their generation(s) are actually the ones largely responsible for climate change being where it is today. “A lot of us have children and grandchildren who will certainly be affected by climate change, but the moral side of it that I see is that our generation is the one that has lived through the ramp-up of fossil fuel usage,” Walsh explained. “Our generation has put most of these greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere that are causing the warming. So in a sense we’re responsible for what’s going on here, perhaps more so than the younger generations.”

What Can Older Adults Do About Climate Change?

The outlook may seem bleak, but it doesn’t have to be. Our panel experts agree that small steps can make a big impact, and there’s more than one way to contribute to reducing the effects of climate change.

Make Small Changes

Older adults, typically with fixed incomes and well-established lifestyles, may feel that they have to completely change their way of life to have an impact—which couldn’t be further from the truth. Each person or family making small changes is easier on everyone, more practical, and comes together to make a big difference. Kolstad listed some accessible ways to reduce your impact, including making changes to the lighting, heating, and air conditioning in your home. Modern technologies are more efficient and therefore require less energy to run, which reduces your carbon footprint by lowering the demand for fossil fuels, as well as levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

He also suggested considering an electric vehicle, although that’s not an affordable option for everyone. Limiting unnecessary travel and carpooling with friends and family can similarly reduce your contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Some other small changes may include actions we all know to be beneficial, like reducing use of consumer goods (especially plastic items) which contribute to industrial emissions during production and transportation, and reusing items whenever possible. These changes may feel insignificant on an individual level, but they promote a mindset of sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction that can carry over into other parts of your life.


A common sentiment regarding climate change is that individual efforts will be ineffective if policies and practices on a larger scale don’t change. This may be true to some extent, but it simply means that people should get more involved in changing the policies and practices of industries and corporations. Doing so doesn’t need to be much of an effort—all it takes is getting informed and using that information to vote. Rosen advocated for getting involved and voting at very local levels, since many people overlook the importance of starting ideas and making changes in their own neighborhoods. 

Americans age 65 and older make up 16.9% of the population, representing a significant portion of the total number of eligible voters. Their impact on politics should not be overlooked, and Walsh urged older Americans to help shape policies. It’s important to remember that it’s not about which side of the political fence you’re on—it’s about getting policymakers into office that think about the next generation, not just the next election cycle. 

“Right now, we have the largest investment that we have ever had, and likely will have for a long time from a policy standpoint, to put money toward resilience and climate change,” said Ashley Ward, a senior policy associate with the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability. “We have this enormous investment, and what would be awful is if five, 10 years from now, we look back and people say, ‘oh, all of that money didn’t really do anything.’ We have enormous potential for this money to do great good.”

Talk About It

Starting conversations about climate change is a great way to get involved and spread concern about the issue. The important thing to remember is that, when people are resistant or disconnected from an idea, they’re most receptive during discussions with their peers. Rosen, as an expert on communicating climate change issues, pointed out the importance of knowing where we can make the most impact, and drawing connections between climate change and the things people care about.

Many older adults may not be connected to mainstream media or seek out environmental news outlets. Combined with common aging issues like hearing loss or vision impairment, it makes sense that modern messaging may not be as accessible. If you’re an older adult or caregiver who cares about climate change, talk about it. Share your concerns and ideas with other older adults so more people get comfortable hearing about it and discussing it. People are more willing to make changes if they know those around them are making changes too.

Bottom Line

Older adults may not be at the forefront of addressing climate change, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a difference. With over 54 million people over age 65 in the United States alone, it could be a big difference. Climate change is an issue that affects them directly, on a daily basis, and in the future. While it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects, its not all bad. Changes are being made, more people are getting on board, and elected officials are starting to realize the importance of prioritizing climate-friendly policies, like regulating single-use plastics and imposing fines for companies and industries with excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Now is a great time for older adults to get involved and help shape the climate change discussion, for themselves and future generations.

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With over six years of clinical experience in long term care and rehabilitation, Ayla is passionate about helping people age safely and with dignity. She is an LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse), licensed with the State Board of Nursing in Massachusetts, and holds a B.A. in Psychology. Through her education and work she has focused on combining practical health knowledge with the individual needs and desires of older adults to bring the absolute best care and content to patients and readers.

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Christopher is a Board-Certified Geriatric Nurse Practitioner and Holistic Nurse. As a Nurse’s Aide, Registered Nurse and now Nurse Practitioner, he has loved working with older people since 2004. He earned his Master’s Degree with Honors at Yale University, completed an Advanced Practice Nurse Fellowship in Geriatrics at New York University, and gained comprehensive experience working with people with dementia (and their families) at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY.

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Girouard Ayla. "Older Adults and Climate Change" AgingInPlace.org. Apr 10, 2023. Web. Apr 04, 2024. <https://aginginplace.org/older-adults-and-climate-change/>.


Girouard A. (2023, Apr 10). Older Adults and Climate Change. AgingInPlace.org. https://aginginplace.org/older-adults-and-climate-change/


Ayla Girouard, "Older Adults and Climate Change," last modified: Apr 10, 2023, https://aginginplace.org/older-adults-and-climate-change/.