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Earlier this month on the wAGING change blog, we discussed evidence of the inordinate vulnerability of older adults relative to climate change – particularly climate-related situations that may require evacuation or displacement, and those that affect food and water supplies.  Both U.S. and international agencies report disproportionate numbers of older adult fatalities from climate disasters, and there is a clear call for disaster preparedness that specifically considers and acts on the needs of older adults.

There is another aspect to this story, however, and that is the suggestion that older adults may also be disproportionately contributing to climate change.

A 2019 report in the New York Times (Span, 2019)  suggested that as we increase in age, we also increase our energy consumption, with those 75 and older consuming more than adults at other ages. Estiri & Zagheni (2019) created a complex model to study age-related profiles based on residential energy consumption in the U.S. (adjusted for income and housing conditions) and concluded that energy usage increases between ages 30 and 55, then declines somewhat until ages 70+. Between the ages of 30 and 55, the increase appears related to increases in housing size, whereas after age 70, an increase in energy usage is more notable in areas with more extreme climate. In particular, warmer climates were associated with higher energy usage among adults older than age 70. Does this cast older adults as villains in terms of contribution to climate change?

Estiri & Zagheni point out that the combination of increased housing size in the context of shrinking family size, along with increased energy consumption by older adults in warmer climates, presents an intensifying situation for countries that are experiencing population ageing. If one situation were occurring absent of the other, the challenge would be less intense. There is also a cyclical nature to the problem: the climate is warming, which prompts higher energy usage to keep cool, while keeping cool also relies primarily on energy sources that are problematic in terms of contributing to climate warming.  As these authors conclude:

In addition to the fact that there will be more people over the age of 65, a general increase in the numbers of warm days and nights as well as the frequency of extreme hot temperatures expected in the U.S. [….] Together, the ageing of U.S. population and the changing climate may also intensify the energy demand among the elderly (2019, p. 69)

However, these authors consider only residential energy usage in calculating age-related energy consumption, and one might argue that older adults spend a greater amount of time in their homes as opposed to those in younger demographics who may be occupying air conditioned work spaces or have greater energy usage via travel.

Can we agree that older adults are neither simply victims nor villains in the climate change story? It’s more complicated and interwoven than those choices present. Some suggest, for example, that older adults might even be vanguards –  I use that term, of course, because it also starts with a ‘v’, but let’s just say heroes – in terms of climate change. Haq, Brown, and Hards, authors of the 2010 Stockholm Environmental project, suggest that better engagement with older adults is needed around the topic of climate change – because they have lived it, because they are a demographic that tends to be socially engaged, and because they show a willingness to tackle the wicked problem of climate change.

Victims. Villains AND Vanguards….maybe by embracing all three possibilities relative to aging and climate change, we will arrive at a point of more effective engagement with the earth, her inhabitants and her changing nature. Stay tuned for our final installation in this series by doctoral student Sarah Torgeson, who will take us to the U.S. Gulf Coast for insights into the lives of older adults experiencing climate change in that region.

                                                                                          ©2021 JLWomack Professor Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy UNC-Chapel Hill


Estiri, H. & Zagheni, E. (2019).  Age matters: Ageing and household energy demand in the United States.” Energy Research & Social Science, 55, Pp. 62 – 70.

Haq, G.,Brown, D. & Hards, S. (2010). Older People and Climate Change: The case for better engagement. Stockholm Environment Institute Project Report – 2010. Stockholm Sweden.

Span, P. (2019). Older People Are Contributing to Climate Change, and Suffering From It: the new old age. The New York Times Company.

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