With age comes wisdom. Ask any politician. They listen closely to what older Americans think and say for a simple reason: older people vote.
There’s an even simpler reason why politicians (and all of us) should listen to the elders of our communities: they’ve seen and know a lot. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that a growing number of seniors are taking up a cause that’s the critical challenge of our age: climate change.
While efforts to lower global emissions often send people into partisan corners of the political boxing ring, one group is showing it’s possible to transcend boundaries and unite around this common goal.
“We’re facing a lot of challenges as a country, and as a world, and I had this sense that older folks could be making more of a contribution,” said Paul Severance, a founder of Elders Climate Action.
Severance attended a meeting in California several years ago, spawning the formation of the Conscious Elders Network.
“I spoke up at the meeting and said we should focus on climate change if we care about our grandchildren,” Severance recalled. “So I was appointed to head the committee.”
The group’s membership currently consists of about 1,700 elders. “We’re trying to reach out to people because numbers can really make a difference,” Severance added.
His challenges are two-fold because of the nation’s political climate and because of society’s bias against the elderly.
“The difficulty is — and it strikes me as absolutely nuts — that the climate change issue has become some sort of a code for the great ideological divide in this country.” Severance explained. “It’s just nuts.”
Severance prefers the term “elder” because of the ageism in society.
“Most terms for older people tend to carry a negative connotation,” he explained. “We probably need to come up with a whole new word. We chose elder because at least in traditional cultures, it implies a position of respect in society.”
While many people understand that society does not value older people the way it should, Severance says it’s precisely his advanced age that gives him an advantage. “An elder voice can come into this issue from a different standpoint than an environmentalist,” he explained. “It adds a voice to it that could tip things.”
Elders and organizations that represent them are often divided along partisan lines, a gap Severance is trying to bridge with shared concerns.
“Whether climate change is a threat to my grandchildren has nothing to do with whether I’m a liberal or conservative. People don’t think about climate change in realistic terms. Climate change is seen as an environmentalist issue and a lot of people don’t identify that way.”
“We’re trying to talk to older people who are at a stage in life where we’re concerned about the meaning of our lives, our grandchildren and what we’re passing on,” Severance said. “Simply talking about the welfare of future generations lets us come together and make a difference on that.”
The group was in the “figuring-it-out-stage” around the People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014, where the founders marched behind a large banner with the slogan “We the Elders, what will be our legacy?” and many carried signs with slogans like “I’m marching for my grandson.”
Severance said the group is politically focused because “there’s a limited window of time to do something major in terms of dumping greenhouse gases.” While there’s a lot of information out there about how individuals can reduce their carbon footprints, the U.S. government needs to make major policy decisions.
Their first official action was in September 2015, scheduled to coincide with Hallmark’s Grandparents Day. On Grandparents Climate Action Day, about 125 elders gathered in Washington D.C. and visited 100 Congressional offices. Severance said the legislators listened to their message.
Going forward, their main priorities are implementing Citizen’s Climate Lobby’s carbon dividend proposal and the full implementation of the Clean Power Plan.
Severance often works with Moms Clean Air Force, which does similar work by engaging a demographic with a shared concern. But that group is larger and more organized, Severance said, joking: “their organization is what we want to be when we grow up.”
Severance finds organizing seniors just as rewarding now as he did during his 27-year career as a community organizer for United Senior Action of Indiana. For most of his career, community organizing involved knocking on doors and convincing people to come to meetings in local churches. The group’s efforts resulted in improvements and changes in state law, but it remains a problem.
Like many people, he retired at 65 and tried to figure out what he would do in his next phase of life. He was interested in climate change and he’d enjoyed working as an organizer, so he decided to try engaging older people in climate action.
“What attracted me to working with older folks was that I found people to be really dedicated to making a difference for others,” Severance said.
Grandchildren were a huge motivator for many in the group, including Severance, who has two grandchildren, Alisha and Zachary, and a great-grandson named Michael.
“Usually, people had to be affected by a problem to come out and work on it,” Severance explained. “With seniors, they didn’t always have to be affected directly. People who were not in nursing homes came out because they were concerned about people they knew or they could imagine themselves in that position someday.”
The next action day in Washington will be in the spring, when many environmental groups will gather to demonstrate.
Societies change, and as more people experience the impacts of climate change firsthand, opinions do, too. These elders are setting an example for future generations — those who will follow their lead and those whose livelihoods will be determined by their elders’ actions.