Aging population could drive Obama's climate change policies

Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviews President Obama about climate change and public health
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Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviews President Obama about climate change and public health 04:43

Story highlights

  • Adults 60 years and older will make up about 25% of the U.S. population by 2050; older people vulnerable to climate change effects
  • Michael Smyer: Obama should tap into this demographic -- which tends to vote -- to push forward with his climate change policy

Michael A. Smyer is the former provost and a current professor of psychology at Bucknell University, and the founder of Graying Green: Climate Communication for an Aging World. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The world's population is aging at the very time that immediate action on climate change has become crucially important. And we ignore the shared link between these two global patterns at our own risk.

Consider: The number of people 60 and older on Earth has doubled since 1980, and is forecast to reach 2 billion by 2050 -- jumping from 11% to 22% of the total population during the first half of this century, according to the World Health Organization.
Michael Smyer
In the U.S. alone, adults 60 and older made up about 18% of the population in 2010, and by 2050 will reach about 25%.
    What does this have to do with climate change? This week, President Obama has a golden opportunity to add to his environmental legacy when the White House Conference on Aging convenes in Washington. At the moment, climate change is not on the conference agenda, which means the administration is missing an excellent chance to build up political consensus on this important issue for this fall's U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris.
    A year ago, Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson and Tom Steyer launched the Risky Business Project -- a bipartisan series of studies that laid out the very real economic and health risks facing the nation and each of its regions because of climate change. The Risky Business team applied the business discipline of risk assessment to the economic and health implications of the changing climate.
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    Their results were startling, outlining increased economic disruptions and health risks that could be expected if nothing is done to stem global warming. For example, the average resident in the Southeast region will experience from one-and-a-half to four additional extreme heat months per year. This will lead to 14 to 45 additional deaths per 100,000, with urban residents and older adults at increased risk.
    With this knowledge in hand, it is time we focus on the impact of climate change on American subpopulations, especially older adults who are likely to suffer health consequences and are a potential political force on climate policy.
    One of the Conference on Aging's main themes will be maintaining older adults' health. It is easy to see how climate change will play a significant role in this broad topic.
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    In a recent review of scientific literature, Environmental Protection Agency economist Janet Gamble and her colleagues confirmed that older adults are especially vulnerable to climate change-related conditions: excessive heat and other extreme weather events, degraded air quality, and increased rates of infectious diseases. Older adults are also less resilient in adapting to climate stresses on the environment.
    If the President wants to gain political traction with a regulatory and legislative agenda including greater limits on coal burning and greater incentives for the use of alternative energy sources to cope with climate change, he should recognize that older adults can be a key part of the process.
    Older adults' tendency to vote is disproportionately higher than other age groups. Meanwhile younger voters' participation has been decreasing.
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    For example, in the 2012 presidential election, 71% of citizens 64 to 75 years old voted, compared with 38% of 18- to 24-year-olds.
    Older adults are primed to think about their own legacies and about future generations. By the time we reach midlife, our sense of time shifts -- we start to focus on time left to live, rather than how much time has passed, said Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, in a TED Talk.
    As Carstensen pointed out, "When we recognize that we don't have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly." And because a key priority for older adults is ensuring the prosperity of their family, making sure the world remains a stable environment could fit easily into the narrative of caring for those they prepare to leave behind.
    It's time for Obama to realize that his "graying" audience is an untapped resource for "green" thinking.