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Extreme weather hurts older Californians. That’s started a wave of climate activism

(Pictured above: Shirley McGrath, founder of Elders Climate Action’s NorCal chapter, marches at the Global Climate Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 12, 2018. Photo credit: Elders Climate Action) 

This story appeared in print edition of The Sacramento Bee on July 26, 2021 and in the e-editions of The Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Modesto Bee, San Luis Obispo Tribune and Merced Sun-Star on July 24 and 25, 2021.

By Zachary Fletcher (’22)

As the weather swings to extremes, no age group is more threatened by its capriciousness than older people, a population ill-prepared for climate change and growing exponentially.

Consider that many seniors suffer from chronic heart and lung conditions that heat waves and poor air and water quality would exacerbate. And that they are less mobile, putting them at more risk when severe weather strikes. In 2005, one study noted,nearly half of the deaths from Hurricane Katrina were people over age 75.

Recently, California recognized this vulnerability in its Master Plan For Aging, taking the first step to protect older people from the consequences of climate change. While five states have created blueprints for how to better serve the growing senior population, only California’s mentions “climate friendly aging,” a loosely defined concept that involves transportation improvements, housing modifications and environmental volunteer opportunities.

A key part of the plan is getting older people invested in the cause as environmental activists in their communities. Many had jumped in without an invitation, joining their peers a few years ago in a new wave of environmental activism.

“Climate change may be the largest health issue facing our constituents,” noted the Master Plan’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee report, which was drafted in spring 2020.

The Master Plan, released by Gov. Gavin Newsom in January, comes with no money and no specific timetable. And making it work would require help from the federal government, which eased off its own climate aging plan years ago. But getting seniors involved in the plan’s climate initiative shouldn’t be a hard sell, given that those who grew up in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s share a history of activism in the Civil Rights, anti-war, environmental and other movements.

“It’s aimed at where we are going, and we couldn’t set up a plan for 10 years without dealing with climate change,” said Marty Lynch, CEO emeritus of LifeLong Medical Care who served on the 35-member Stakeholder Advisory Committee.

That committee included researchers from California universities as well as public officials and advocates from organizations that serve older people, said Jeannee Parker Martin, a committee member and president and CEO of LeadingAge California, which promotes quality nonprofit senior living.

After talking with a number of experts, the committee included climate change in the hundreds of recommendations it made to state officials. The experts warned how warmer temperatures could have dire consequences on older people, especially those with chronic medical conditions.

The aging population is disproportionately impacted by climate change, the U.S. Global Change Research Program noted in a 2016 report on how the changes will affect people’s health. And by 2050, the population of people over age 65 is expected to reach 88 million, double what it was in 2010.

But the government hasn’t addressed climate change’s effect on older people, an issue that has been “stashed away in a shelf” for years, said Kathy Sykes, a former senior adviser for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Aging Initiative.

Sykes said the EPA launched the Aging Initiative in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration, without funding and with a team of one — herself. It looked at what impact the rapidly aging population would have on the environment. Out of the initiative, the National Agenda for the Environment and Aging was developed and released in 2003. Like California’s Master Plan, the national agenda identified research gaps on environmental hazards for older people and addressed the role an aging population could play in combating environmental issues. But it didn’t set a plan in motion.

Through the initiative, Sykes wrote EPA fact sheets on the dangers of extreme heat and air pollution for older adults in 2004. But by the time Sykes retired in 2017, the initiative had fizzled, its website pushed to the archives.

Environmental health “just hasn’t been made a priority in the aging world,” Sykes said.

PROTECTING SENIORS FROM FLOODS, FIRES, DROUGHT AND POLLUTION

The EPA says the short-lived initiative led to findings about the risk air pollution poses for people with cardiovascular disease and helped researchers understand other health conditions affecting older people. Though it ended the initiative, the agency said it still considers seniors and other vulnerable people in its environmental health research.

A 2016 EPA report pointed to many of the same issues the Aging Initiative had mentioned years earlier — namely that more needed to be done to protect seniors from the floods, fires, droughts and pollution that climate change would spur.

California’s Master Plan For Aging specifically wants to bring more older people and those with disabilities into the state’s Climate Action Corps, which launched last fall and enlists fellows as well as volunteers to help communities address such things as droughts and wildfires.

As of July, there were no corps volunteers over the age of 65. But California Volunteers, the agency tasked with increasing the number of older members, is beefing up outreach to meet the age-diversity goals in the state’s plan.

The Master Plan also includes climate-related proposals to put more money and resources into weatherizing and modifying housing for older people; assessing what they need to deal with a disaster; converting buses, cars and paratransit into zero-emission vehicles; and replacing the pump tax with a mileage-based system that many see as fairer to seniors.

Outside of the Master Plan, many environmental groups have been meeting online for the past year to talk about how their personal aging relates to climate change. They’ve been monitoring legislation, offering tips to save on water and energy use and thinking about what a return to in-person activism might mean.

‘EVERYBODY IN THIS GROUP HAS SOME HISTORY OF ACTIVISM’

On a Thursday afternoon in early June, 22 people logged onto Zoom for a monthly meeting about California’s climate issues. Todd Weber from San Jose sat in his home office. Bill Murphy from Mountain View leaned against a couch, and Linda Lewin from San Francisco logged on as she was finishing up her lunch.

They are all members of Elders Climate Action, the environmental branch of the Elders Action Network, which has been organizing older adults around environmental and social justice causes since 2014. EAN founder John Sorensen thought it possible for a movement of elders to transform American society. Others believed that too, and EAN chapters opened in 13 states plus Washington, D.C. California is the only state with multiple chapters (Northern and Southern) and has the most registered members.

Sorensen challenged the idea that older adults should “get out of the way” as they age. “The reality is, some of us don’t want to do that,” he said.

Each month, the Northern California members gather for an hour and a half, doing so virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. The meetings usually start with an introduction from Weber, the group’s leader, as he sets the agenda and introduces new members. One of the new members at the June meeting was 92-year-old Tobey Klein, who logged in from her home in Emeryville.

As a member of a separate group of older Berkeley activists, Klein was already involved in election integrity and social justice causes, and before that, in other political, environmental and community issues.

Last September, as wildfires engulfed California in a thick layer of smoke, Klein gazed across San Francisco Bay as darkness replaced her usual view of the city skyline. With her bay vista reduced to ash, Klein committed to do more about climate change.

“The water is very special for me and that’s why it’s part of where I’m looking to see what I can do,” she said.

Part of what drew her to the groups was the common sense of purpose among the members. She remembers that camaraderie back to the late 1960s, when she worked on the campaign for fair housing.

“We’re all activists,” she said “Everybody in this group has some history of activism.”

Physical limitations and other barriers prevent many from marching or protesting at rallies. But through the ECA and other organizations, they can stay engaged and work for change.

“Some of it is as simple as writing a letter to the editor or calling up a member of Congress,” Sorensen said.

For Klein, it meant attending ECA meetings or collecting signatures for an electric bus campaign.

“I’m very functional, but I’m certainly not going to do some of the things that younger people are doing,” she said. “So I’ve had to take an approach that within climate change, I can break things down and find something where I can be effective.”

COMMUNAL SPACE FOR INDIVIDUAL ACTION

In 2015, members of the broader group, Elders Action Network, traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress. That trip, organized around National Grandparents Day in early September, started the group’s push for federal action on greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy and international commitments like the Paris Climate Agreement.

At the state level, the Northern California chapter devotes time each month to deciding which California Assembly or Senate bills require calls or letters. And at the local level, members often branch off into their own communities for action.

Sorensen, in Truckee, California, helped pass a resolution committing the town to use 100% renewable electricity by 2030. Klein has spent years volunteering at the Berkeley Marina, teaching children about ocean health and safety.

Bill DeVincenzi, an ECA member in San Jose, started a sustainability club, educating his neighbors on climate mitigation practices like taking cold showers or installing solar panels. In 2019, he put solar panels on his home and purchased a red Tesla.

Many see ECA as a communal space for planning individual action. “Some people are comfortable with email, some people are comfortable knocking on doors … everybody has their way of doing things,” DeVincenzi said. “We’re really trying to get people to become activists.”

Like Klein, who is concerned about her “long line of progeny that need to be protected,” many older adults get involved with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in mind.

Concern about legacy is a major motivator for environmental action later in life, according to a 2020 study co-authored by Mick Smyer, a psychology professor emeritus at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Smyer also is the CEO of Growing Greener, formerly called Grayng Green, which he founded in 2015 to connect two major global patterns — the increasing aging population and climate change. It has evolved to help any organization and individual draft a climate action plan. His own motivation also started with thoughts of his grandchildren — Bailey, Gus, Teddy and Rowan.

“It’s easy for me to think about what the world will be like when they’re my age, in 65 short years,” said Smyer, “and what the world is like that I’m leaving.”

DeVincenzi, 78, whose history of activism started in the 1980s with the Beyond War movement, saw climate action as imperative when considering his own legacy. After a second retirement, DeVincenzi joined Elder Climate Action, became Elder Action Network’s treasurer and started a part-time faculty position at San Jose State University.

Each week, he sends a message to friends and family with a mix of climate-related action items — “take showers, instead of baths” — and environmental news headlines. And each email ends the same, with a reminder about who will benefit from the effort: “Children, Grandchildren, All Future Generations and All Life.”

Sorensen, the Elders Action Network founder, turned his focus to future generations after he stopped working for a paycheck in 2009. Older adults, he thought, were in a unique position to dedicate their time in retirement toward issues like climate change and election integrity, even if they wouldn’t be around to see the end results.

“This is like building a cathedral. You know it’s going to take decades to accomplish this,” Sorensen said. “We’re about using this period of life to make a difference.”

According to the Yale Program on Climate Communication, over 70% of adults believe that climate change is happening but only 37% talk about it. Smyer’s organization addresses this “climate silence” in trainings that ask people to imagine how climate change might alter their hometown or favorite park in 40 or 50 years. Smyer then asks people to spell out specific steps they will take on climate action.

In 2020, Smyer’s organization changed its name to the more age-inclusive Growing Greener, a nod to the group’s focus on intergenerational action.

“Those are issues — aging and climate change — that everybody alive today is going to have to deal with,” Smyer said. “Nobody will get away from dealing with aging or climate change.”

Zachary Fletcher is a writer with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. The IRP reported on this story through a grant from The SCAN Foundation. 


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Zachary Fletcher ( 2022 )

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