Older, Wiser and Fighting Climate Change

Mick Smyer is working on a fellowship on climate change and aging at Stanford University. Photo: Patrick Beaudouin

It’s a common misconception: Older adults don’t care about climate change. Why? Because they won’t be around long enough to experience the results, the misguided thinking goes.

Mick Smyer has stepped inside the eye of the storm to reverse this myth.

It began with Hurricane Katrina, which devastated his hometown of New Orleans in 2005. Then it was the birth of twin grandsons in 2015, who deserve a planet free from devastating weather events.

After that, Smyer knew exactly how he’d spend his yearlong civic innovation fellowship with Stanford’s design school.

But first he had to overcome some human obstacles.

“I thought I’d work with hundreds of other people who were working at the intersection of two global patterns,” aging and climate change, he says.

He quickly learned there were only a handful of people straddling the two worlds. So he launched the website Graying Green to help foster a social movement that would “energize older adults around what is arguably our most important issue.”

And where others – including climate change scientists – only saw tired victims, Smyer saw possibilities.

“It’s an important, growing and largely untapped demographic,” he adds.

What can I do?

Smyer has so far interviewed 400 adults over 60 using his simple, three-step Graying Green engagement process. Most are from California or Colorado.

First, he asks them to select a special place they love, then imagine it being affected by extreme weather. “It sidesteps the politics,” says Smyer, 66. “Everybody has a place they care about.”

Next, Smyer asks them to sort climate change action cards into three piles: what they’re already doing about it, what they might do, and things they’ll never do.

“It’s kind of odd, but people like doing this,” he says. “It’s important to acknowledge the things they’re already doing.”

Finally, comes the commitment contract. Smyer asks the participants to commit to one of the actions in their “might” pile. He may even suggest a commitment website like StickK.

What if they don’t follow through? Bad news. They must commit to donating money to a cause they dislike, like the campaign of an opposing candidate.

“I’m delighted to see how many things I’m already doing, but I’m even more delighted to see what my next step is,” quotes Smyer of a typical response. “And that’s the point. Helping people see the next step on their journey.”

Show me the future

In 2015, Santa Cruz marine scientist Susanne Moser led a team who installed a 360-degree climate change viewer on the Mill Valley-Sausalito Multi-Use Path in Marin County. For 14 weeks, observers used the viewer to see the future influence of climate change on the landscape.

Besides envisioning water three feet higher, other possible futures included a sea wall to protect against flooding — one that completely blocked their view — and a levee with a bikeway. All would dramatically change the landscape.

The installation tallied more than 3,700 views, with 150 participants leaving audio feedback after their peek into the future.

“Amazing messages,” says Moser. “Some of them quite emotional.”

Moser says those who began the interactive session with the least concern about climate change did an abrupt turnaround: “They were the most likely to want to engage and make an impact in the community.” The experiment is summarized in the paper Never Too Old to Care: Reaching an Untapped Cohort.

Other explorations

Others are exploring the intersection of aging and climate change.

UC Berkeley associate professor Greg Niemeyer is pairing 130 Berkeley middle school and Stanford earth sciences students with older adults to record their observations about climate change. The three-minute videos will be posted on YouTube.

In 2011, Canada’s Simon Fraser University hosted the conference Growing Old in a Changing Climate.

And at a recent conference hosted by Physicians for Social Responsibility addressing the health effects of climate change, the average age of participants in conference work groups was 74.

The lessons of fracking

Smyer and others are taking a cue from another important environmental movement: the fight against fracking.

“It’s very inspirational to see how elders have played a major role in this movement,” says Wenonah Hauter, founder of Food & Water Watch.

The controversial fracking process involves shooting jets of water into the earth to release trapped oil and gas. Environmentalists have said that the practice may contribute to groundwater contamination or other health hazards.

Hauter says older adults have been integral to the movement because they offer three important attributes: wisdom, life experience and time.

“There is a huge momentum in this movement,” she says. “And I can tell you, elders are playing an important role.”

The myth that older adults don’t care about climate change is parodied in a humorous video by the website Funny or Die featuring Hollywood celebrities like Ed Asner and Cloris Leachman. “You know why I don’t care about climate change?” jokes actor M. Emmett Walsh. “Because I’ll be dead, silly.”

The truth, says Smyer, is that older adults are both worried and confused.

“They’re concerned about it, but they don’t know what to do about it,” he says, citing a common reply: “I have time and talent but I don’t know what to use it on.”

Military support

Most recently, climate change opponents have been empowered by President Donald Trump and new Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt, both climate change deniers.

Yet even some fervent right-wing organizations believe humans are responsible for rising temperatures.

In 2009, the U.S. military officially acknowledged the reality of climate change. Not only will climate change create greater global instability, say officials, but refueling fossil fuel tankers puts American troops at greater risk.

The American public is largely concerned as well.

A shocking map from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that a majority of citizens in nearly every county in the United States believe that climate change is occurring.

Smyer has a diverse and extensive background – he has worked as a clinical psychologist, and been the head of the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and provost at Bucknell University.

Today, he’s trying to save the world from the effects of climate change by uncovering heroes.

“Giving back is elders’ superpower.”

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation.

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