Crew Commentary

Our Elders are Vulnerable to the Impacts of a Changing Climate

Bob Leonard - Climate Risk Manager


There are hundreds of millions of Baby Boomers all over Spaceship Earth. They are now in their 60s and 70s. They are our neighbors, friends, family… maybe even ourselves. Climate change is a public health emergency. Older adults are especially vulnerable to the impacts of our climate crisis. Adults 65 and over make up 16% of the US population, and the nation is growing older.


Heat is the most deadly byproduct of our climate crisis. As we enter into the summer months, we should be vigilant for the needs of the vulnerable among us.




Scientists estimate that greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, transportation, industry and other sources has increased global average temperature by 1.9° F since 1880. Extreme heat is stressful for everyone, but for those who are older and possibly frail, the effects are more dangerous. Access to air conditioning and water are vital.


Diseases Carried by Ticks and Mosquitoes


A warming world alters the habitat and lifecycle of insects, such as the ticks that carry Lyme disease and the mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus. Scientists predict that incidence of malaria and Dengue fever, among other vector borne illnesses, will increase as pathogens enter previously uninfected areas.


Declining Air Quality


Rising temperatures increase the formation of ground level ozone, or smog, which can worsen respiratory conditions such as asthma, lung infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Climate change is also increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires resulting in vast stretches of countries being choked with wildfire smoke for days at a time.




Extreme Weather  


Climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfall, cold snaps, drought and wildfire. These weather events in turn can cause flooding, electricity outages, and damage to essential infrastructure such as dams, roads and sewage systems. Older adults are more likely to suffer storm and flood-related fatalities, as well as intestinal disease caused by sewage system failure.


Limited Mobility


Older adults are more vulnerable to heat stroke because of limited mobility, which makes it harder to get out of the heat to cooling centers, libraries or other air conditioned locations. It’s also more difficult for them to get out of the way during extreme weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires.


Underlying Health Conditions


Underlying health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) can make it harder for people to handle additional health stressors like heat, evacuation and smoke. Older adults are more likely to have such underlying conditions.


Life-Dependent Reliance on Electricity


Older adults are more likely to rely on refrigerated medication; need medical interventions that use electricity (such as oxygen); or require a motorized scooter, wheelchair or elevator. Power failures due to extreme weather events are a growing risk from climate change. These interruptions in electricity supply can be especially harmful to older adults.


Social Isolation


Older adults face increasing social isolation, which makes it harder to ask for help in an emergency. This can leave them more vulnerable to the health effects of climate change. If you know elders who are living alone, check in on them. Perhaps make an evacuation plan with them should it be needed.


Cognitive Impairment and Mental Health Decline


Any kind of cognitive problem can interfere with decision-making. This increases the risk that older adults may not recognize the warning signs of a dangerous heat wave or extreme rain event, or may not exercise proper judgement about what to do in an emergency.



We have a responsibility to protect older adults from our climate crisis. It is urgent that our leaders take decisive, bold action to eliminate the fossil fuel emissions causing our climate crisis. The health of our elders depends on it.


This report was researched by www.momscleanairforce.org and published by www.eldersclimateaction.org