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When it comes to discussing climate change, older people may have one advantage: They have watched it happen.
In the nine Northeastern states, for instance, where average winter temperatures climbed 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit between 1970 and 2000, they have seen fewer snow-covered days, and more shrubs flowering ever earlier.
And they have experienced hotter summers. In New York City, daily summer temperatures at La Guardia Airport have risen 0.7 degrees per decade since 1970, according to the city’s Panel on Climate Change.
Older Americans also are significant contributors to climate change. A just-published study has found that residential energy consumption rises as a resident’s age increases.
Buildings, and residential buildings in particular, are the world’s largest energy consumers. Two researchers recently analyzed federal data on household energy usage that was gathered from 1987 to 2009, and involved nearly 30,000 owner-occupied units. Distinct patterns emerged by age.
Usage was lowest among young adults, who typically occupy smaller households, said Hossein Estiri, a computational demographer at Harvard Medical School and an author on the paper.
Consumption rose rapidly among the 30- to 54-year-old cohort — “the peak of having kids and larger houses,” he noted — then stabilized when people reached their 60s. But “after 70, it goes up and it keeps going up,” Dr. Estiri said.
The trend persisted when the researchers controlled for income and housing types, but it varied by geography. When the researchers looked at climate zones, they found that “energy consumption in warmer regions becomes really elevated for the older group.”
Why do older people use more juice? The study could not provide explanations, but “there might be more need for air-conditioning,” Dr. Estiri speculated. “Or older people may not be able to maintain their homes as well” to conserve energy. “Maybe their appliances are old and less efficient. All of these could contribute.”
The climate change story has plenty of villains; seniors are hardly wrecking the environment on their own. Still, the demographic trends do not bode well.
“There will be more warm days in most areas because of climate change,” Dr. Estiri said. “There will be more energy use by the older group. And because of the population aging, there will be more people in that age group. These trends will amplify each other.”
But in a world that is both warming and graying, older adults suffer disproportionately from climate change.
Consider extreme heat. “It puts a stress on anybody’s body, but if you’re old and frail, it’s harder,” said Patrick Kinney, who studies the effects of climate on health at the Boston University School of Public Health. In addition, he said, “certain medications older people take, for blood pressure or cholesterol, reduce the body’s ability to thermo-regulate.”
The risk of heat stroke, which is potentially fatal, increases because older adults may be less mobile, and thus less able to reach cooler locations in a heat wave. They also may be socially isolated and less able to seek help.
With impaired cognitive function, “you might be less able to judge what to do,” Dr. Kinney said. The air pollution often associated with heat waves intensifies the problems. The Chicago heat wave of July 1995, for instance, caused 514 heat-related deaths; people older than 65 accounted for 72 percent of the fatalities.
Humans can adapt to these extremes, of course. Dr. Kinney and his colleagues found that the risk of dying from heat in New York City declined 65 percent from the early 1970s to 2006 as the proportion of households with air-conditioning surged. But air-conditioners also contribute to climate change.
Any particular episode of extreme weather may be linked only loosely to climate change. But the overall relationship is clear: Aside from heat waves, climate change will bring other kinds of extreme weather and disasters. Elderly people will be disproportionately affected.
“The mortality is always higher among older people,” said Lisa Brown, director of the Risk and Resilience Research Lab at Palo Alto University. “They can’t get out of harm’s way fast enough.”
Blackouts have proved particularly dangerous. Older people may become unable to use power scooters and wheelchairs, refrigerate medications or summon help. After Sandy, many were trapped in high-rise apartments without functioning elevators.
An unhealthy 75-year-old in a care facility may fare better than a healthy 75-year-old living on her own, Dr. Brown pointed out. The facility likely has a generator and stockpiles of food and water; few individuals do.
But in California, Pacific Gas and Electric recently announced that it will consider turning off transmission lines when deemed necessary to prevent wildfires.
“If the power goes off for three or four days, people here are not prepared,” Dr. Brown said. She thinks older people — indeed, all people — always should have enough food and water to last five to seven days, and a plan to evacuate or seek help in emergencies.
Perhaps older Americans, as disproportionate contributors to and victims of climate change, could play an additional role, as active participants in the global campaign to mitigate the damage.
A decade ago, Dr. Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University, began exploring environmental volunteerism among older adults. He found that most environmental organizations had not recruited older members or adapted to support their participation, leaving a major resource untapped. He established a program called Rise, for Retirees in Service to the Environment, to prepare older volunteers for leadership roles in environmental stewardship.
There’s a common notion that older adults care less about climate change than young adults. But that holds true only for Republicans, a Pew Research Center survey found last year, and may be less a product of age than political affiliation.
Millennial and Gen X Republicans were more likely than boomers to say they saw the effects of climate change and that the federal government was doing too little to reduce it. But among Democrats, who were far more concerned about climate change and energy policy than Republicans were, the pollsters found only modest differences by age.
Older volunteers would benefit by working to halt climate change, Dr. Pillemer said: “Participants gain fulfillment from activities that have results they will not be here to enjoy.”
Later-in-life, or “generative,” volunteerism has been shown to increase health and psychological well-being.
“If the boomers could be motivated to take this on as their defining generational legacy, they could have incredible impact,” Dr. Pillemer said. “With their huge numbers, they could potentially do something about it.”
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