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Will Climate Change Kill Off America's Elderly Majority?

In a recent presidential debate all Republican candidates refused to admit that man made climate change is the cause of the recent extreme weather the globe has been experiencing and that it is only going to get worse! In face even Democrats are pushing more fossil fuel projects, so what does that bode for the future of America?

Some facts that we should be aware of is that just over 44 percent of the US population is aged 50 and over, and their numbers are rising rapidly with the aging of the baby-boom generation. As of July 1, 2022, United States Census Bureau estimates that Non-Hispanic whites were 59.3% of the U.S. population. This makes any national population growth even more reliant on other race and ethnic groups. The white demographic decline is largely attributable to its older age structure when compared to other race and ethnic groups. This leads to fewer births and more deaths relative to its population size. Not only is the white population declining, but it is also getting older, as the large baby boomer generation continues to enter its post-labor-force ages. Yet the new census data tells us that help is on the way in the form of new growing generations made up of Black, Brown, and other people of color.

Older adults are more likely to have health conditions that make them more sensitive to climate hazards like heat and air pollution, which can worsen their existing illnesses. Couple that with economic decline of the dollar and impending pandemic woes and their is a recipe for a near overnight change in the demographics of the country! In general, the younger U.S. generation is more concerned about climate change than the older generations. But the ones in mortal danger are those who tend to ignore it rural white Americans especially those people living on floodplains, coastlines, or in areas prone to severe storms who are more vulnerable to extreme weather.

Low-income rural communities (without infrastructure access), elderly populations, and children disproportionately feel the negative health impacts caused by global warming, from increased heart and lung complications to starvation, and various other health complications. With scientists now predicting a 50:50 chance of temporarily reaching 1.5 - 2 °C above pre-industrial levels in the next 5-7 years, it is increasingly vital to not only curb the catastrophic effects of climate change already upon us but to enact strong environmental policies and data-driven sustainability strategies that protect those most vulnerable. Non-Hispanic white people make up 77 percent of the over age 75 population, 69 percent of the age 55-65 population, 60 percent of the 35-50 cohort, and barely half of the 18-24 age group.

The elderly – due to their shorter remaining life spans – profit less from these future benefits. This suggests an important life-cycle effect whereby individuals put different levels of emphasis on protecting the environment depending on their age and stage in life. While US president Donald Trump (age 74) argues on Twitter that “global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”, Greta Thunberg (age 17) is the face of a global “school climate strike” movement urging immediate environmental action.

New research by Benny Geys, Tom-Reiel Heggedal and Rune Sørensen at BI Norwegian Business School shows that beyond the age of 45 growing older makes people put less emphasis on protecting the environment. Within rapidly ageing Western societies, this may make future policies less rather than more environmentally friendly. This would happen despite recent generations’ higher support for protecting the environment. In short many elders don't care because they wont be around to suffer from the decisions they make in fact those decisions will likely shorten their lives!

Among the unique circumstances that may make it more difficult for adults 60 and older to prepare for, respond to, or survive a climate change event:

Complex medical conditions impacting physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities to care for oneself and respond to climate disasters, Dependence on caregivers and intact medical delivery systems, which can be fragmented during climate disasters. Normal aging processes that create less muscle and body tone, which can limit agility and mobility. Cognitive impairments ranging from minimal to severe dementias impairing the ability to assess risks, plan responses, and execute protective behaviors. Dependence on medications and life-sustaining equipment that may be unavailable or require intact power supplies that may not be readily available at temporary shelters.

“Social determinants of health” like economic security or substandard housing can exacerbate the impact of climate induced disasters and are considered “threat multipliers” Clearly, the impact of climate change on older adults is an enormous public health concern. Due to the post-World War II baby boom in Europe, the United States, and Japan, as well as falling fertility rates in less developed countries after 1970, many countries will have to contend with populations that contain rising proportions of older citizens. This trend is most pronounced in Japan, but it is also notable in a number of other countries, including both China (Which will lose half its population by 2060) and India!

A second issue to consider is the pressure posed by an aging population on public finances. Population aging implies a relative decrease in the number of working-age individuals and a relative increase in the number of retirees, a situation that could lead to falling tax revenues and increasing demand for public services. In Japan, the pronounced aging underway has influenced the government’s credit rating as analysts worry about how the country will care for its increasing number of elderly citizens. Even in countries with no social security system, population aging would be likely to erode the government’s financial position as tax revenue declines. The fiscal constraints imposed by aging populations will make it more difficult for governments to finance measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change. So by not informing the elderly of the mortal danger climate change imparts the governments increase the likelihood that population will die before they have to pay for their care.

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