The conversation surrounding Canadian seniors and climate change has a very consistent tune. Seniors are vulnerable. They are at high risk when it comes to extreme heat—as we saw in B.C. this past summer—are likely to suffer more from air quality issues than others. They will have a harder time getting to safety during an emergency flood, tornado or whatever other climate-induced weather event might occur these days.
These are all valid concerns. Care for older Canadians is one of the areas that we must start seriously investing in. But the fixation—on the part of gerontologists, politicians and even family members—on seniors’ vulnerability puts them squarely in the category of passive victims. And this is simply not the case.
Seniors are taking action to combat climate change. It’s time that environmental organizations started to include them in their work.
Rise of the “Grey Greens”
In September, the Washington Post published a piece about a group of “grey greens” who were willing to get arrested at a climate protest in London. The seniors who spoke to the newspaper mentioned they feared for their grandchildren’s futures or felt partially responsible for the current crisis. They stood side by side in civil disobedience with younger generations.
A 2017 article by Dr. Rick Moody in the Public Policy and Aging Report argued that seniors indeed had to face up to the fact that “They—that is, we—need to acknowledge that responsibility”. But it need not be all guilt and handwringing. As the author points out, seniors have power, including political clout as a demographic that votes in huge numbers. And there is something to be said for experiential knowledge, which younger groups may lack.
I have certainly noticed this in my own work as communications coordinator for Climate Legacy, a Canadian project of the Group of 78 that aims to get seniors connected to climate action. Many of the folks I work with have backgrounds in labour organizing and union participation, or have been environmentalists for decades. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge about how to organize rallies, how to be heard by politicians and how to write compelling op-eds. There is growing research about seniors’ roles in environmental groups in Australia, the UK and the US. Sadly, we still only have anecdotal evidence in Canada that seniors are having an impact on the climate conversation.
Where are the Grey Greens of Canada?
It is a shame that there is not more discussion of seniors’ roles in environmental movements in Canada because there is plenty that proves the value of participation among older people. For example, seniors have been on the front line of the Fairy Creek blockade for months. They volunteer with community organizations dedicated to doing their part for the climate. Groups like the Raging Grannies remain prominent at protests across the country. Organizations explicitly made up of seniors, like Grand(m)others Act to Save the Planet, Seniors for Climate Action Now and Eco-Elders for Climate Action Calgary are advocating for change at local, provincial and federal levels.
Canada’s most prominent environmentalist, David Suzuki, is a senior. Let’s not forget too, that Indigenous elders are absolutely essential to environmental stewardship and the maintenance of local ecosystem knowledge. We must follow their lead and we must encourage participation of seniors across the country.
Here is where seniors’ health and climate once again intersect. In a recent report, HelpAge International found that while climate change was certainly a threat to older populations, getting involved in environmental issues can improve seniors’ psychological and sometimes physical well-being. Seniors can benefit from volunteering or work that is focussed on improving the world and leaving behind a valuable legacy for future generations.
Getting Seniors Involved
It is high time environmental groups in Canada take advantage of the wealth of knowledge, time and energy that seniors can bring to the table. But barriers remain to senior’s participation in climate work. According to HelpAge, seniors may feel hesitant to get involved because they feel they don’t have the scientific expertise or knowledge about the issues to be of use. They will need—and possibly anyone of any age could also use this—basic educational training on initiatives, and training on how to talk about these issues to others.
There is also the simple fact that seniors are less adapted to the Internet and online organizing tools. This has led many to steer clear of organizations that do most of their work online. Though a recent poll has found that “72% of Canadians aged 65 and over feel confident using current technology,” tools like Slack, Zoom or activities like creating graphics online or analyzing web stats are hardly commonplace and will require more effort for seniors to navigate. Holding workshops or organizing webinars with groups like Connected Canadians that can help seniors learn how to use these unfamiliar online tools, will have enormous benefits. That, and offering alternative modes of engagement will benefit not only seniors but others who have accessibility concerns as well.
Lastly, though more seniors are online than ever before, environmental organizations are not necessarily targeting them for volunteer opportunities. Working with retiree associations, retirement homes or other clubs and groups that skew older is another way to reach this increasingly climate-aware demographic.
From my own anecdotal experience, I can tell you that seniors are energized and excited to be a part of work that not only directly effects their communities but has global and long-term implications. The perceived passivity of seniors, or presumption that seniors are only victims of climate change, not actors in mitigating it, smacks of ageism when we have so many examples to the contrary. We need everyone on board to end the climate crisis.
It’s time everyone sees seniors as vital assets to the cause.