Feature Story | 5-Oct-2023

Clearinghouse highlights aging, climate as interlinked risks

Cornell University

Record-breaking summer heat focused attention on climate change, but Cornell University experts say too little has been paid to its intersection with another critical trend: the world’s rapidly aging population.

Older adults are known to be among the most at risk to extreme weather events that are expected to grow more frequent, from heat waves to hurricanes. Over 70% of those killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, were age 60 or older.

Meanwhile, by 2030, more than 1 in 5 Americans will be at least 65 years old, and by 2050, the number of people aged 60 and older globally is expected to double to more than 2 billion.

“Just as COVID-19 affected older people disproportionately, the same is true for the effects of climate change,” said Karl Pillemer, professor of psychology and gerontology in medicine at Cornell University. “Helping older people and the communities in which they live become climate-resilient has to be one of our highest priorities, because they are among the most vulnerable, and the issue has been almost ignored up to this point.”

To change that, Pillemer and colleagues have launched the Aging and Climate Change Clearinghouse, an initiative to gather, promote and stimulate research, real-world interventions and policies addressing the intersection of aging and climate change. Funded by Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, the clearinghouse also aims to encourage older adults and environmental organizations to work together toward solutions.

Pillemer directs the initiative, which builds on a decade-long research program at Cornell.

For researchers, the clearinghouse offers a database of peer-reviewed articles focused on aging and climate change, funding opportunities and an international list of research affiliates. Among many pressing questions requiring further study, Pillemer said, is how best to protect vulnerable older adults – such as those living in nursing homes, or with limited mobility – who have moved in large numbers to climate-vulnerable regions.

“There’s no clear or concerted planning for how to evacuate people who might have limited physical ability, for how to help people to age in place in locations that have these kinds of dangers,” Pillemer said. “There’s a critical need for new knowledge.”

The clearinghouse also provides resources for older adults, including facts about climate change and testimonials from community volunteers; and for environmental organizations, including profiles of groups engaged in the issue and strategies for recruiting and working with older volunteers.

Climate activism often is viewed as a young people’s movement, Pillemer said, with older adults framed as passive victims or even blamed for the crisis. In fact, he said, they could play an important and growing role in effecting change.

“Figuring out ways to move the baby boomers into taking action that not only helps society, but protects themselves as likely the most vulnerable population, is absolutely critical,” Pillemer added.

Pillemer’s research has detailed benefits to older adults engaging in environmental activism, finding it can promote physical activity and health, feelings of empowerment and a sense of leaving a legacy for future generations. He’s also identified barriers: Older people on average have been less concerned about climate change than younger people; may feel they lack expertise in environmental issues or awareness about opportunities to act; and confront ageism within environmental organizations.

At the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, a team including Pillemer developed Retirees in Service to the Environment (RISE), a model environmental education and leadership training program for adults over 60 that sought to address those barriers. An assessment of nearly 150 participants in New York and Florida concluded that RISE “provides a compelling strategy to match untapped volunteer resources with pressing needs.”

Pillemer hopes the Aging and Climate Change Clearinghouse becomes a trusted, go-to resource on these issues, propelling new research and action that he believes is urgently needed.

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.


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