Mobilizing Older People to Address Climate Change

By Pillemer, Karl; Filiberto, David | Aging Today, March/April 2018 | Go to article overview

Mobilizing Older People to Address Climate Change


Pillemer, Karl, Filiberto, David, Aging Today


Editor's note: This article is excerpted from one published in the Public Policy & Aging Report, Vol. 27, No. 1., on Feb. 14, 2017. Public Policy & Aging Report is a publication of The Gerontological Society of America. Material adapted with permission of The Gerontological Society of America.

Global climate change poses a serious threat due to increases in large-scale drought, incidence of disease, shortages of water and food, rising sea levels and extreme weather events (goo.gl/8nXb9c). Older persons are among the most at risk and will therefore face heightened challenges in adapting to climate change, with potentially far-reaching implications for the health of individuals, as well as for societal strategies to cope at both the population and policy levels.

One component of this issue has received very little exploration: broad mobilization of older people in environmental civic engagement and volunteerism to combat climate change. By failing to engage the older population in such efforts, our society is missing one of the most potent weapons to address climate change and environmental sustainability issues more broadly.

Older people, from the leading edge of the Baby Boom Generation to people in their 80s and beyond, are eager to contribute to the greater good through civic engagement. One way to maximize their talents is through environmental stewardship. An important priority, therefore, in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts should be engaging older individuals in environmental volunteerism and civic engagement.

Barriers to Environmental Engagement

To examine the "elder-friendliness" of environmental organizations, we surveyed local environmental organizations in New York State (googl/FxWC8b). Approximately two-thirds of the organizations did not make special accommodations for older persons. Further, less than a third made efforts to adapt activities toward older people. However, some environmental organizations are planning strategies for attracting and accommodating older persons.

Recommended actions include the following: ensuring that the organization's location is accessible; providing a range of volunteer jobs for people of different interests and physical abilities; making provisions for transportation when needed; offering daytime activities, given that some older people are reluctant to drive after dark; recognizing the heterogeneity of the older volunteer population such that "one-size-fits-all" approaches are unlikely to work, and a diversity of volunteer jobs is needed.

Such strategies also can be implemented in senior living communities to pro- mote participation in activities that foster environmentally sustainable practices in those settings.

The need for volunteer labor is great, and by their sheer numbers, the baby boomers (and beyond) can have an enormous civic impact if they act collectively. Engagement of community volunteers is one of the most important solutions to environmental problems, in particular on the local level (goo.gl/LaJjuK). Communities gain concrete environmental benefits as a result of volunteer programs (goo. gl/D49qab). The financial benefits are also large. For example, climate change can diminish biodiversity. In Europe, where international conventions compel countries to monitor biodiversity, it has been estimated that costs of monitoring would triple without current volunteers (goo.gl/YD5tKS).

A Model for Engaging Volunteers

Over the past decade, we developed and tested the Retirees in Service to the Environment (RISE) program. Created in collaboration with environmental organizations and aging services providers, RISE attempts to make the entry into environmental volunteerism easier for people ages 60 and older.

Research conducted during program development revealed three potential barriers for older persons regarding environmental volunteerism. First, some older people feel they have insufficient expertise or knowledge about environmental issues and science to contribute effectively. …

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