Clearinghouse highlights aging, climate as interlinked risks

Record-breaking summer heat focused attention on climate change, but Cornell 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, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Psychology and the College of Human Ecology (CHE), and professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “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 CHE, 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. Three more Cornell faculty members serve on its advisory committee: Nancy Wells, professor in the Department of Human Centered Design and senior associate dean for research and graduate education in CHE; Dr. Cary Reid, the Irving Sherwood Wright Professor of Geriatrics and the director of the Office of Geriatric Research in the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine; and Michael Hoffman, professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. External partners include Liat Ayalon, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and organizations including Elders Climate Action, Growing Greener and the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA).

“The clearinghouse spotlights the urgent need to protect vulnerable older adults in the face of climate challenges,” said Colin Milner, CEO of the ICAA. “Older adults can play an active role in climate action, and the clearinghouse mobilizes them and environmental groups for sustainable solutions.”

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 said.

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, part of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, a team including Pillemer, Wells and researcher Rhoda Meador 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.

“We need science brought to bear on optimal ways to protect large numbers of older people as climate change worsesns,” he said. “We would argue that researchers, environmental and aging organizations, and older people themselves must to some extent stop other things they’re doing and focus on this issue.”

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Jeff Tyson