How it’s already affecting your health, home and safety — and what you can do about it
En español | Remember the Great Texas Freeze this past February? Never-before-seen ice storms crashed trees onto power lines and froze the wind turbines Texans turn depend on for heat and light. Record-breaking temperatures gave way in some places to snowfalls not seen since the Truman administration. Then the pipelines that supply natural gas to power plants froze up. Families huddled for warmth in the dark for days, and the nation watched their misery on TV.
Now let’s recall the California fires of 2020, with nearly 10,000 blazes that consumed more than 4.2 million acres of forest and killed 33 people. The North Complex fire alone was responsible for more than 300,000 acres of scorched land, leaving 16 people dead in its wake. Last year’s fire season was the worst in California history, claiming countless ancient redwoods and sequoias and changing the natural face of the Golden State forever. Once again, extreme weather played a role: Lightning and a record-breaking heat wave, combined with Diablo and Santa Ana winds, sparked wildfires that kept California on the nightly news for much of the summer.
Those are extreme weather events, but even the everyday has become more extreme. Scientists have been measuring air temperature since the 1880s, and 2020 was Earth’s second hottest of the past 140 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Moreover, 19 of the warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. No matter what you may think about the causes, the climate is changing, and the repercussions of this are no longer some distant concern. With rising temperatures and more violent weather come a host of issues that affect how older Americans live — from where we choose to reside and new health risks we face to whether we can still pursue the lifestyles we’ve long hoped for.
To assess these risks, the AARP Bulletin talked with more than three dozen experts and reviewed more than 90 studies. Here is what they say is the current and near-term impact of climate change on older Americans, in four categories: your finances, your choice of home, your health and your day-to-day activities. The experts also share their advice on what to do to mitigate these issues now — and if or when they become more severe.
Risk: Greater storm risk
Impact: Rising home insurance rates
Someone has to pay for the devastation of the freezes, floods, hurricanes and fires that increasingly lead the news, and we the people will likely foot that bill through higher insurance outlays. Annual rates are soaring on homeowners policies in storm-ravaged Louisiana and Florida, where premiums are now more than $3,000 a year, even with relatively low rebuilding costs, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Some California residents saw their fire insurance jump 300 percent in 2019 after big burns there.
But another factor in rate increases is uncertainty. “If insurance companies fear that the worst-case scenarios might get even worse, they will have to prepare for that, requiring higher premiums,” says Robert Erhardt, who researches environmental and climate statistics at Wake Forest University. For instance, a storm delivering 40 inches of rain over four days in Texas was nearly unfathomable — until Hurricane Harvey in 2017. After that, actuaries recalculated the odds to 18 percent for a similar or bigger storm by the end of the 21st century because of climate change. That means higher bills.
With more than $20 billion in debt from hurricane payouts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program raised premiums in 2020 by an average of 11.3 percent, and much more for properties in the most flood-prone zones. All of this is also leading to an overhaul of the system. FEMA will soon unveil “Risk Rating 2.0,” the biggest change to the way flood insurance premiums are calculated since the inception of the program in 1968, with new rates set to take effect Oct. 1.
And you don’t have to live in harm’s way to feel rates rise. The $20 billion to $25 billion in claims paid out after Harvey “gets passed along to customers even if you live in Washington or Maine,” says David Havens, who covers the insurance sector for investment bank Imperial Capital. “When individual insurance rates go up after a large loss, wholesale rates go up even more, and insurance companies have to recoup those losses.”
AARP’s policy focuses on three main areas of climate change that affect older people:
- Energy: AARP supports affordable and reliable sustainable energy policies that ensure that all consumers can afford their essential energy needs.
- Livable Communities: AARP calls for transportation options that include alternatives to driving, housing that uses materials and technologies that decrease energy and water use, access to parks, and policies to address natural disasters.
- Health: AARP policy supports addressing the immediate and long-term impacts of climate change on the health of older adults, people with disabilities and other vulnerable populations.
Risk: Chaotic farming conditions
Impact: More expensive groceries
Think you spend a lot at the supermarket? Consider that last summer, at least a third of Iowa’s corn, soy and other crops were wiped out by powerful derechos, which caused devastating wind damage and torrential rains in the Midwest. Extreme weather also hurt the supply of a favorite beverage: Last year’s California wine grape crop decreased by 14 percent, largely because of wildfires.
Overall, the cost of food in 2020 increased by more than double the rate of the year before, the Consumer Price Index shows. Of course, the pandemic caused some production and distribution disruptions, but experts note that the climate contributed as well and will keep prices higher. Even more vulnerable are specialty crops such as coffee, cacao, tea, honey and vanilla beans. Says Amanda Little, author of The Fate of Food, “We will likely see more shortages and cost increases for the most delicious foods.”
Climate change poses an even greater risk in other parts of the world: Some populations in the Middle East and eastern Africa face famine.
Risk: Climate mitigation
Impact: More “green” investment
Within any crisis, opportunity and hope arise. Companies are investing in green technologies, and their successes could boost your retirement or investment funds. “Green investing” is red hot, with investors snapping up stocks, bonds and funds that focus on environmental sustainability.
In recent years, the number of investment opportunities in the ESG category (environmental, social and governance) has skyrocketed, with close to 400 ESG open-end funds and exchange-traded funds, according to fund tracker Morningstar. Some are investing in such assets as green bonds, wind power stocks and clean energy funds.
The additional choices give retirees and those approaching retirement options for diversification, says Mitchell Kraus, a financial planner and chartered socially responsible investing consultant in Santa Monica, California.
“Most ESG investments either outperform or perform similarly to conventional investing,” says Tensie Whelan, founding director of New York University’s Stern Center for Sustainable Business, citing a meta-analysis of more than 1,000 research papers the center conducted with Rockefeller Asset Management.
Yet just like any type of investing, risks remain. Investors could lose money, Whelan warns. And since there’s no universal, agreed-upon standard as to what qualifies as an ESG, there’s “wiggle room” for interpretation, she says.
Risk: Hotter temperatures
Impact: A shifting retirement map
The hot new destination for your golden years might be one that isn’t so hot. “Retirees are likely to skip the Sunbelt in favor of mid-Atlantic states, the New England coast and the Midwest, because of climate changes,” says Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer.
As temperatures and sea levels rise, places like Toledo (Ohio), Boise (Idaho) and Burlington (Vermont) may emerge as safer havens for migrating older Americans. The northern Minnesota city of Duluth has even been referred to, somewhat in jest, as America’s “most climate-proof city.”
“Inland U.S. cities at higher latitudes and elevation are better insulated from extreme heat and coastal flooding,” says Jesse M. Keenan, an associate professor of real estate at Tulane University and an expert on climate adaptation and design. He points to “signs of retiree mini-booms in towns throughout the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains,” where there are lower environmental risks than in previous coastal hot spots, as well as lower costs of living.
What you can do for your home
Shop assertively for insurance. Consider a policy with higher deductibles to lower your premiums. Updating your roof can also reduce your insurance rates.
Protect your home. Consider thicker insulation, a more efficient air-conditioning system and energy-efficient windows. “The earlier you do things, the more calmly you can do them, and the cheaper it’s going to be,” says Carlos Martín, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. “You don’t want it getting to the point where it’s a crisis.” If you have a medical condition that requires life-support equipment or heating and cooling needs, your utility company may provide a discounted rate for air-conditioning as a medical necessity.
Discourage ticks and mosquitoes. The CDC recommends repellents with DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, paramenthane-3,8-diol, or 2-undecanone. For extra tick protection, try permethrin-treated socks, pants, shirts and hats.
Forbes now factors climate risk into its annual roundup of 25 retirement dream towns. “When you consider the wildfires, drought and mudslides in California, the 100-plus-degree days in Arizona, and hurricanes and flood surges in Florida, you start to think differently about where you want to enjoy your carefree years,” says Forbes contributor William P. Barrett. That’s one big reason Fargo, North Dakota, is the only place that has made the Best Places to Retire list for all 10 years the magazine has compiled it. “In picking places for retirement, it’s important to think about things like overall cost of living, access to medical care, walkability and crime rates,” Barrett says. “But you also want to go outside without broiling or constantly worrying about evacuating to higher ground.”
Risk: Chronic weather catastrophes
Impact: Falling home values
In real estate circles, they’re calling it the coastal housing crisis, brought on by rising seas and nuisance flooding. With ocean levels predicted to increase in the U.S. by as much as 2 feet by 2045 and as much as 6 feet by 2100, it might be time to rethink that beach house. The threat is already taking a toll on prices in high-risk parts of Florida, even as the broader real estate market sees gains and as rich tech bros flock to Miami. “Housing sales in the most exposed coastal areas of Florida quietly began falling in 2013, and more recently, home prices started dropping — all directly related to climate changes,” says Benjamin Keys, a professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. His 2020 research paper on 1.4 million real estate transactions found that the number of home sales dropped by 16 to 20 percent between 2013 and 2018 in Florida communities closest to the water. “This is a case where water can literally erode the value of your most precious investment,” Keys says.
In other parts of the U.S., rising sea levels sank home values in 18 states, from Maine to Texas, by $15.9 billion between 2005 and 2017, according to research released by the nonprofit First Street Foundation. That included 81,900 homes in coastal North Carolina — picture the hurricane- and flood-ravaged Outer Banks — that lost $582 million in value. Tidal flooding along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, eroded around $264 million in home values over that same 12-year period.
As with water, so it is with fire. Following catastrophic blazes in 2018 that severely damaged the Northern California town of Paradise, home values dropped 20.5 percent between October 2019 and October 2020, according to the real estate website Redfin.
Interestingly, in California, fires can also stoke the market, as burned-out buyers scramble to find new homes nearby. Sales in fire-ravaged Napa County were up 40 percent in the third quarter of 2020 over the same time period the previous year, and up more than 50 percent in that same period after fires in Sonoma County.
If you won’t give up that dream of living on the ocean in your retirement years, S. Jeffress Williams, a senior scientist emeritus with the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center in Massachusetts, offers this simple advice: “Don’t buy — rent.”
What’s the climate risk where you live?
Top climate risks in the U.S. by county — Wildfires, water stress, extreme heat, hurricanes, extreme rainfall, and sea level rise.
No matter where you are in the U.S., you likely face some type of extreme weather. It’s well known that some Western states are prone to wildfires, and areas along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are targets for hurricanes. But much of the rest of the country is experiencing other phenomena, according to Four Twenty Seven, a climate research group affiliated with Moody’s financial services company. “Water stress” reflects an increasing demand for water in areas that can face drought-like conditions.
Risk: More extreme weather
Impact: More fortified houses
About 3 out of 4 adults 50 and older want to stay in their residence as long as possible, according to a 2018 AARP survey. But that may require significant upgrades as heat waves, floods and wildfires impact our homes.
Among potential concerns: mold in basements and on floors, roof damage from high winds and loss of power from storms, says Carlos Martín, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
This is forcing many homeowners to make their structures more climate-resilient. For example, people who live near areas prone to wildfires may need to upgrade their air-filtration systems. If you’re in a flood zone, consider moving utility equipment out of the basement to a spot above ground. And your air-conditioning unit may need to be replaced with a more efficient model that can cool your home better. In some places, new construction or even renovations focus on elevating homes and making them stronger and more resistant to wind and water.
Many people are already taking action; spending on backup electrical generators rose 36 percent between 2016 and 2019, to some $6 billion a year, The Wall Street Journal reported. And metal roofs — considered best able to withstand high winds — are in demand. The Metal Roofing Alliance reported that 8 percent of all newly built homes in 2019 were outfitted with metal roofs, double the market share of 2018. The industry attributes this interest primarily to more extreme weather.
Risk: Seasonal changes
Impact: More allergies and bug bites
Think your plants are blooming earlier? You’re not imagining things. One of the ways the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tracks climate change is by cataloging the spring blooms of honeysuckle and lilacs across the country. The evidence shows that “earlier dates appear prevalent in the last few decades.”
Earlier blooms and grass growth have two measurable health effects. The first is more pollen in the air; pollen seasons in the U.S. are, on average, 20 days longer now than in 1990 — and the air is filled with 21 percent more pollen, according to a University of Utah study published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In counties where the pollen season was trending earlier (from 2002 to 2013), hay fever rates were 14 percent higher than in counties where spring arrived in the normal range, according to a 2019 University of Maryland study.
A second factor is the rise of dangerous bug bites. Cases of diseases carried by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas tripled in the United States between 2004 and 2016, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports that the rate of Lyme disease alone doubled between 1991 and 2014, driven at least in part by climate change; disease-carrying deer ticks are most active in warmer temperatures — and their American habitat range is expanding.
What you can do for your health
Take heat warnings seriously. Adults living in northern states and at higher altitudes, as well as older adults in general, underestimate the real risks of extreme heat, a 2019 Utah State University study found. Pay close attention to the heat index — which factors in relative humidity.
Heed the air-quality and ozone warnings in weather reports. You can also find air-quality info for your ZIP code at airnow.gov. Or try the American Lung Association’s State of the Air site. Remember that air that appears “clean” can be polluted — even miles away from highways and factories.
Be aware of new hay fever symptoms. Respiratory allergies are on the rise among adults, and pollen surges can turn minor hay fever into more severe allergies, the World Allergy Organization warns. If you’re suffering your first season of watery eyes and a stuffed-up nose, it’s best to visit a doctor for a diagnosis rather than just buying pills off the shelf.
Risk: Hotter climate
Impact: Heat-related ailments
Yes, Los Angeles is known for its dry heat. But in September 2020, L.A. County recorded its highest temperature on record — 121 degrees — a few weeks after California’s Death Valley reached what might be the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth: 130 degrees. In such conditions, going outside for mere minutes is treacherous for anyone, but especially for older people.
“As we age, our physiological responses to hot temperatures — such as sweating, releasing heat through dilated blood vessels at the surface of the skin, and thirst — diminish,” says Soko Setoguchi, M.D., professor of medicine and epidemiology at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and its School of Public Health.
Heat-related illnesses and hospitalizations are increasing. Says the EPA, which surveys health data as an indicator of climate change: “Relatively high hospitalization rates in the Southeast and Midwest suggest a connection between hotter and more humid summers and increased rates of heat-related illness, compared with other regions.” Hospital admissions and emergency room visits for kidney failure, urinary tract infections and other health problems have also increased for older adults during heat waves. It appears that our medicines don’t help the situation. In a 2020 study of more than 375,000 older adults with chronic health conditions, Setoguchi found that drugs such as loop diuretics, ACE inhibitors/angiotensin II receptor blockers, and antipsychotics boosted the odds of hospitalization for heat-related problems by up to 33 percent.
Risk: Rising ozone levels
Impact: Increased lung disease
It’s well known that smoking rates in America have been declining — from nearly 21 percent of adults in 2005 to 14 percent in 2019, according to the CDC. And so it would stand to reason that lung disease would also be declining. That may be true in many instances, but not for emphysema; rates of this breath-stealing ailment have remained generally steady, the American Lung Association says.
One culprit, scientists surmise, is rising levels of ground ozone, an invisible gas associated with automobile exhaust and factory emissions. The link to climate change is this: Heat and sunlight convert pollutants into ozone. (This is different from the Earth’s “ozone layer,” which is 9 to 18 miles above the surface. That atmospheric ozone protects us against radiation from the sun, and is a good thing.)
In 2019, Joel Kaufman, a University of Washington physician and epidemiologist, released a study of 7,000 urban-dwelling midlife and older adults that found ozone was significantly associated with the progression of emphysema-like changes on lung scans and a decline in lung function. “I was very surprised,” says Kaufman of the lung scans that he examined. “Fractions of the pixels on the scans showed there was air where normal lung tissue should be. These emphysema-like changes in the lungs were as much in relation to outdoor ozone concentrations at people’s homes as they were to smoking cigarettes.”
Similarly, 1 in 4 Americans with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) today are nonsmokers, a 2017 CDC study found.
Risk: Changing seasonal climates
Impact: Tougher gardening conditions
For decades, gardeners have relied on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) plant hardiness maps to know which species can survive the winter in their region. But in 2012, the agency updated its maps to reflect a warmer world. The new map generally showed a 5-degree change in the average minimum winter temperatures across much of the country. While a longer growing season helps some — gardeners who historically were unable to grow heat-loving crops, such as watermelon and oranges, sometimes now can — the change also presents challenges.
Higher summer temperatures affect the productivity of many flowers and vegetables, while other crops need a certain number of winter chill units — measured as the number of hours between 32 and 45 degrees — to produce blossoms or fruit.
A changing climate also alters the geographic distribution of garden pests. Patty Glick, author of The Gardener’s Guide to Global Warming: Challenges and Solutions, once grew bountiful roses in Seattle, but that changed when aphids moved into her garden. “I decided I wasn’t going to grow roses anymore because I didn’t want to spray,” she says.
The good news, says Glick, is that strategies to adapt gardens to climate change often help in other ways. A thick bed of mulch helps hold moisture in drought-stricken beds while preventing erosion in downpours — increasingly common extremes. It also adds organic matter to the soil, which simultaneously improves fertility and sequesters carbon.
What you can do to help the Earth
Park the car. Reducing by half the number of car trips under a mile could save 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. “Walking more isn’t just good for the planet, it’s good for your health,” says Jonathan Patz, M.D., director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin.
Unplug electricity vampires. Many electronics and appliances — including stereo components, phone chargers, coffee makers and charging stations for electric toothbrushes — draw power even when turned off. These “always on” devices eat up 23 percent of U.S. home power, says the Natural Resources Defense Council. Unplug what you aren’t using. For TVs and computers, use a power strip with an on-off switch.
Eat less meat. In the U.S., livestock cattle are responsible for 3.9 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA says. Meat eaters who cut back to three servings per week could reduce their greenhouse gas footprint by over 500 pounds annually — the equivalent of driving 600 miles, researchers say.
Risk: Hotter weather and rising sea levels
Impact: Lost travel opportunities
Time to edit our bucket lists? Destinations we long had on our “someday” travel lists — the Great Barrier Reef, Alaska’s ice fields, the Taj Mahal, Antarctica — are endangered by warming temperatures, pollutants and rising seas. In 2019, Venice, Italy, experienced its highest tides in more than 50 years. At Everglades National Park, mangrove trees have been growing farther inland as the amount of freshwater marsh has been shrinking while sea levels rise. Even New York City’s Lady Liberty is sweating it out. Relentless storm surges during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 left Liberty Island and nearby Ellis Island with more than $77 million in weather-related damage.
Over the past 150 years, the soft chalk that makes up the famous White Cliffs of Dover in England has been eroding 10 times faster than in the previous 7,000 years. When it was established in 1910, Montana’s Glacier National Park had nearly 150 active glaciers. Now there are only about 25.
“Even if we don’t notice these losses as travelers today,” says Nicole Sintov, assistant professor of behavior, decision-making and sustainability at Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, “our grandchildren certainly will.”
Risk: Heat and poor air quality
Impact: Becoming housebound
Beyond the risk to your health, climate change can affect your fitness and social life. Those who do the responsible thing and heed warnings to stay indoors on days with a high heat index or poor air quality are nonetheless missing out on regular walks, rounds of golf with friends and fishing trips with the grandkids. And it isn’t even just the heat that’s at play. “Any change in climate that affects weather will affect the older population most directly and keep people housebound,” says Casey J. Wichman, an environmental economist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
It’s clear, too, that we are making our homes more comfortable. In Northeastern states, only about 50 percent of all new homes were built with central air-conditioning in 1975. By 2015, that figure exceeded 90 percent.
But this is one area of climate change that may not be all bad news. While summers are getting hotter, the flip side is that winters and shoulder seasons are milder, and that means more opportunities for cycling, hiking, fishing, camping and other outdoor pursuits on days between 60 and 70 degrees.
Risk: Shifting seasonal climates
Impact: Birding flies away
The American robin once returned from wintering in Florida and Mexico as a harbinger of spring across the continental U.S. Now robins are spotted as far north as Alaska and New England all winter long. “People think of climate change as a future problem, but birds are the great messengers that these changes are happening now,” says Brooke Bateman, director of climate science for the National Audubon Society.