Last October, Jane Fonda received the 2019 Stanley Kubrick award for excellence in film, a prestigious honor from the British Academy of Television Film and Arts. Regrettably, the then-81-year-old actress was too busy getting arrested on Capitol Hill to accept the award in person.
“Thank you, BAFTA!” she shouted as police led her away in plastic handcuffs. The civil disobedience was part of Fire Drill Fridays, a weekly rally organized by the actress-turned-activist in partnership with other climate justice organizations. More than 30 other demonstrators also filed into police vans that day, one of whom was Lynne Iser, roughly 10 years Fonda’s junior.
Iser got her own pair of handcuffs and rode to jail with Fonda and a few other arrestees. They talked about their motivations for joining the climate movement, their engagement with different environmental organizations and the importance of doing something to support a cause they cared about.
“She just felt the same angst for her grandchildren,” Iser told Earther.
Though she was in college during the Civil Rights Movement and supportive of the era’s societal change, Iser was never one to get arrested for a cause. But as she aged, her worldview shifted. She began to see growing older as an opportunity to reflect on the kind of world she would leave future generations. The wisdom and experience gained through the years of life under her belt became assets in making that world a fairer and safer place. She wasn’t aging; she was “eldering.”
“What I think is most important now is creating our legacies,” Iser told Earther. “What do we want to stand up for and fight for?”
As her daughters became anxious about the state of the Earth’s climate, Iser decided she would fight for a habitable planet. She joined Elders Action Network, an organization that engages older people in social justice and climate activism. Once she heard about Fonda’s plan to be arrested every Friday for the remainder of 2019 and into 2020, she headed down from Philadelphia to join her, along with folks from all generations willing to sacrifice their criminal records for the good of the planet.
People like Fonda and Iser may seem out of place in the primarily youth-led climate movement—they’re at least half a century older than activists like Greta Thunberg, Isra Hirsi, and Jamie Margolin. But as they age, older people are becoming more willing to stand alongside their grandchildren in the fight for a livable future—and they have the time, networks, and wisdom to make a real impact.
A small group of concerned older people founded Elders Climate Action (ECA) in 2015 to mobilize their generation on climate and social justice-related issues. The group—now more than 10,000 strong—has seen a significant uptick in membership since youth-led movements made the climate crisis a top issue. ECA partners with environmental organizations like the Environmental Voter Project and youth-led movements like the U.S. Climate Strike and the Sunrise Movement to bring older people into the climate fight alongside younger generations.
These climate elders come from a variety of backgrounds and have varying experiences with activism. Hazel Chandler, a co-leader and founder of ECA’s Arizona Chapter, has participated in the environmental movement ever since the first Earth Day in 1970. Back then, she saw firsthand how demonstrating for clean air and water resulted in meaningful policy change. Today, the climate movement is trying to tackle an even greater challenge than cleaning up toxic waste or regulating air pollution. It’s trying to transform humanity’s relationship with the Earth to prevent the catastrophic decline of ecosystems we depend on for our survival.
“My son, who just turned 51 years old, was a toddler on my hip when I first knew global warming could be a problem,” Chandler told Earther. In 2015, she retired from her job at a state organization that funds early childhood programs and decided to devote her free time to ensuring those children have a livable planet to succeed on. One phone call with ECA, and she was suddenly on the newly formed organization’s national steering committee.
Last August and September, the Arizona chapter hosted five town halls across the state, bringing together speakers and organizations from across generations, cultures, and faiths to discuss ways to address the climate crisis at all levels of government. In just two months following those meetings, the chapter’s membership ballooned from 50 to nearly 800 people.
The Arizona Youth Climate Strike co-hosted several of these town halls, and the intergenerational work has paid off. Beyond boosting the number of people turning out at public actions, activism has become a way for young and old activists to learn from each other. Elders helped youth navigate the state’s legislature, talk to their representatives and decipher complicated policies. Aditi Narayanan, the Arizona Youth Climate Strike’s co-director, said that’s something her peers tended to overlook in their organizing. In return, their younger counterparts taught them the importance of urgency and radical justice.
“It’s really important to have that solidarity, especially when you’re working toward the same goal,” Narayanan told Earther. “It’s been really interesting learning from them.”
Getting involved in climate activism has helped older people connect with others their age (and younger) who share their worldview. ECA co-chair Leslie Wharton, a self-described introvert who had little experience with activism despite being a college student during the Vietnam War protests, never thought she’d be organizing climate strikes in her later years. But seeing how folks could come together in pursuit of something meaningful made her take the plunge.
“We have created a true community, and it feels good,” Wharton told Earther. “It’s taken me this long to realize that activism can have meaning.”
Youth have mobilized to change the fossil fuel economy because they know they’ll have to live with the ever-worsening effects of runaway climate change if world leaders continue to do nothing to mitigate it. But the climate crisis is already here, and though they won’t be around to experience the truly horrific catastrophes in store later this century, older folks are feeling the heat, too.
More than 26 percent of Florida’s residents are over 60 years old, making its population the “oldest” on average of any state. Most of these people live in coastal cities like Naples, Vero Beach and Cape Coral. The ocean at their doorsteps has risen, on average, about six inches since the 1950s. As that baseline water level increases, it exacerbates peak high tides (also known as king tides) and hurricane storm surge, which in turn is causing more frequent and devastating flooding in coastal communities. The city of Miami alone has seen a 320 percent increase in nuisance flooding since 1996. More than a million homes in the state sit less than 6 feet above the high tide line, which makes them especially vulnerable to inundation even on completely calm, clear days. Geri Freedman, a co-chair of ECA, lives in South Florida, where she has seen the changes firsthand.
“When I moved here, there was no sunny day flooding,” Freedman told Earther. “That didn’t exist.”
ECA members in California live in the path of wildfires. Arizonans deal with drought and record heat. Aging people are a demographic group that bears the brunt of these weather woes, as most disaster response protocols aren’t designed with them in mind. They may have decreased mobility or special medical needs that won’t be accommodated in an emergency. They’re also especially susceptible to breathing issues tied with wildfire smoke and heat-related illnesses. If the desire to leave behind a positive legacy isn’t enough of a motivator for elders to take climate action, they’re already living through the effects of a warming world. They also remember that things used to be better and worry they’ll get worse for their grandchildren.
“I have a little grandbaby who’s 17 months old, and I really fear for her future,” Iser said. “There’s no way that I believe that she is going to sit in her home when she’s in her 60s and look out at her backyard, and it’s going to be as beautiful and peaceful as my life is. I just don’t think that’s the future we’re going to.”
Michael Smyer, a professor of psychology at Bucknell University who studies intergenerational attitudes about environmental issues, said older people aren’t just disproportionate victims of climate change—they’re an “untapped resource for climate action.”
While organizing, marching and striking for climate justice is crucial, so is voting for candidates and initiatives that will advance it. For the past four decades, people older than 45 have turned out in increasingly higher numbers to vote in primary, midterm and general elections compared to other age groups. Seventy-one percent of Americans 60 years of age and older voted in the 2016 election, compared to 46 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 years old.
But even within the Democratic Party, older folks don’t necessarily vote for the same candidates younger people do. Exit polls this Super Tuesday showed a stark age gap: 58 percent of voters ages 18-29 voted for Bernie Sanders, whose $16 trillion Green New Deal earned him an endorsement from the Sunrise Movement (ECA’s legal status prevents them from endorsing candidates), compared to only 15 percent of voters over 65. The numbers are essentially flipped for Joe Biden who, despite making room for overhyped “solutions” like fracking and carbon sequestration in his climate plan, still earned the support of 48 percent of the 65+ crowd. Only 17 percent of voters 18-29 picked the former vice president.
While climate justice doesn’t hinge on one candidate or election, it’s clear that a majority of older people still have some learning to do. But on top of intergenerational work, ECA members also work to motivate their fellow elders to vote with the Earth in mind. Chandler said the Arizona Chapter’s partnership with the Environmental Voter Project, which targets people who care about the environment but don’t tend to vote, likely contributed to increased voter participation rates in some of the state’s local elections last November.
Elders who are retired or semi-retired also have more time to devote to activism and political initiatives than younger generations still in the workforce. As they age, they tend to consider what kind of legacy they want to leave behind, like Iser did.
“Tapping into that legacy motive is a good strategy for getting climate action among older generations,” Smyer told Earther. Once they get involved, their ample time, money, and networks—things which Narayanan said youth typically lack—allow elders to be effective drivers of movements.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of grassroots climate organization 350.org, said older people can also take on more active roles in demonstrations (like Fonda) because societal risks are lower.
“If someone has to go to jail in civil disobedience actions, young people don’t need their resumes blotted,” he told Earther. “Past a certain age, what the hell are they going to do to you?”
While older people may seem more likely to reject the reality of climate change, 2010 data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication suggests denialism aligns more with party ideology than with age; older adults who identified as liberal accepted climate science at rates similar to their younger counterparts. Another Yale survey last November found that more Americans describe themselves as “alarmed” about climate change than ever before, no doubt partially due to massive-scale strikes and protests led by youth. Baby boomers made up the highest percentage of that survey’s respondents.
On the ground, Chandler said she’s seen a “huge shift” in attitudes among older people during just the past two years alone—the environment is becoming a priority. Part of it comes from the environmental effects they’re already feeling, and the knowledge that things used to be better. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Indigenous communities, where being an “elder” means much more than reaching a certain age.
Kyle Whyte, professor of philosophy and community sustainability at Michigan State University and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, told Earther an elder is “somebody that has the maturity to bring people together, to mediate, to facilitate, to empower.” Indigenous elders typically have deep, profound knowledge and respect for themselves, the land, and their communities, and they’re equally supported and respected in return. It’s a far cry from non-Native America, where we tuck our older relatives away in nursing homes once they get to be too much of a burden. We don’t realize that our grandparents, with their wealth of lived experience, may still have much to teach us.
Indigenous elders have consistently been some of Earth’s most fervent protectors, motivated by their wisdom and respect for the planet. Take Josephine Mandamin, who began walking around the Great Lakes in 2003 to protect their precious waters. Logging tens of thousands of miles on foot over the subsequent 16 years, she amassed a following of Water Walkers, people of all ages who traveled with her to perform ceremonies in recognition of the water as a living entity. One of those people is Tasha Beeds, assistant professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury. The Plains Cree grandmother said her granddaughters provide her with a window into the future, compelling her to take responsibility for protecting it.
“Grandmothers will always stand up, and grandfathers too,” Beeds told Earther. She added that with age comes a clarity of one’s self in relation to their community: “Whatever I need to do I will do, because I understand who I am now.”
While indigenous communities hold their elders in high regard, Beeds says there’s value placed upon everyone’s perspective no matter their age.
“As older people, we have lived experience, but it isn’t the only experience,” she said. In doing climate justice work, non-Native youth and elders have begun to understand this relationship, too.
In a cultural moment where the go-to retort in any online political disagreement is “OK, Boomer,” generations seem more at odds with each other than ever. People born between World War II and the moon landing are cast off as rigid and out of touch, and even to blame for today’s societal and environmental woes. But the climate movement may be one of those rare spaces where the young and old alike can get along.
Of course, much of the vitriol directed at young organizers comes from adults who don’t take them seriously because of their age. At a TED Talk last December, youth activist Xiye Bastida responded to a question about fostering constructive conversations across this generational gap.
“Climate activists that I know don’t use ‘OK, Boomer’ because we strive for intergenerational cooperation,” Bastida said. “I think that blaming and dividing each other is not going to get us anywhere.”
While Boomers as an age group fed into and benefitted from an economic system that caused this crisis, they weren’t the ones who constructed that system in the first place and spread disinformation about its hazards. That blame lies with fossil fuel corporations and a political system backing them up. Wharton, the ECA co-chair, said, if anything, Boomers are natural allies for the young people leading this fight.
“We’ve got a host of experience and knowledge, and then we’ve got the energy and anxiety of the youth,” Wharton told earther. “Between us, hopefully we can make some changes.”
Chandler says she’s occasionally seen younger folks give people her age flack for failing them on climate issues, and she thinks older people need to take some responsibility for decades of unchecked carbon emissions. But whether they’re getting arrested at the Capitol or circumnavigating Lake Superior on foot, their contributions to solution shouldn’t be overlooked.
“It’s really important for our kids to understand that, yeah, we made a mess of this Earth. But we also were activists,” Chandler told Earther. “When we were younger, we felt like we could change the world.”