Older adults are fighting climate change, seeking carbon tax legislation

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Jeff Haverly gave two presentations this winter before members of his Indiana community, urging them to take action against climate change.

“I start with a map of Florida and ask how many people holiday there. Then I show how Florida will look like in 2050,” the 67-year-old said.

Florida’s coastal floodplain is expected to expand by 47% in the next 30 years due to sea level rise, according to Climate Central, a science organization based in New Jersey. As vast stretches of land go under water, homeowners might have to move to higher ground.

Haverly said he plans to urge his community to take legislative as well as individual action against global warming. If nothing changes, the children and grandchildren in his community won’t be able to enjoy the Florida beaches and many other beaches of the world.

The retired engineer lives with wife Cynthia Ann Haverly in a medium-sized house in Brownsburg, Indiana. The house is fitted with solar panels on two sides of the roof. A turquoise Prius sits in the garage.

The couple’s dog Casey runs around their sun room, which is fitted with potted palms and other trees. Attracted by the indoor trees, sparrows and robins strike the glass walls at regular intervals.

Haverly doesn’t have children. But his scientific approach and his religious beliefs pushed him to become the Indiana chapter head of Elders Climate Action, an organization of older adults “who care for the future of all children.”

“Recently, I was blessed with a new liver and I want to give back to society,” he said.

Haverly added that he felt “terrible” that President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord to limit temperature rise despite the U.S. being the biggest polluter in the world.

“If my generation was partially responsible for creating this mess, then we should fix it,” he said.

According to a Gallup study, only 56% of Americans aged 55 or older take climate change seriously. This is in sharp contrast to 70% of Americans aged 18-34 who are concerned about the impacts.

Haverly said he was surprised that so many people didn’t believe in climate science.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t expect that so many people would think so differently from me,” he added.

Haverly qualified as an operating engineer at a nuclear prototype plant run by General Electric and worked as a nuclear power consultant. He said the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act,  which imposes a fee on producers and importers of fossil fuels, is the only way towards a better future. Florida Congressman Theodore Deutch (D-22) introduced the bill in 2019.

Fossil fuels such as coal, crude oil and natural gas have been traditionally used to run our cars, power businesses and light homes, and are still used to meet most of our energy needs. But burning fossil fuels releases the greenhouse  gas carbon dioxide into the environment and leads to global warming.

In 2017, fossil fuels resulted in 93% of total carbon dioxide emissions and 76% of total greenhouse gas emissions by the U.S., according to U.S. Energy Information Administration, a federal agency sharing energy information.

The proposed legislation would bring down carbon emission by at least 40% in the first 12 years, according to Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an organization seeking legislative changes to fight global warming.

“We have to get the votes out (so that the legislation is passed),” Haverly said. “Carbon emission is like throwing garbage out of the car window and nobody does that anymore.”

He said he was trying to reduce his own carbon footprint, had reduced his air travel and planned to get an electric car.

In northeast Ohio, 70-year-old Mark Wallach is organizing people so that they can put pressure on legislators to support a climate agenda.

For the retired lawyer from Cleveland, it is all about creating a better world for the next generation, including his grandchildren. He said he had five grandchildren and “two more are on the way.”

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, older adults are also vulnerable to climate change issues because of their limited mobility, chronic diseases, and greater risks of disabilities related to mental functioning.

“But the worst impacts will be in the future,” Wallach said.

He said extreme climate events would cause displacement and destruction in the future, impacting the economy and affecting everyone across party lines.

“People need to understand that it (climate change) will impact our economy,” he said and called for clean energy solutions that can replace fossil fuels.

Wallach, who was inspired by one of former Vice President Al Gore’s climate presentations, said he supported a carbon tax that would create incentives for industry to reduce carbon emissions.

For 60-year-old Gerald Gleeson and wife Debra Gleeson, 62, the climate challenge is a social problem. The couple, who live with their two daughters in DuPage County, has signed up with the Sunrise Movement, an organization led by youths to seek climate action.

Gerald graduated from Chicago’s Lane Tech High School and went on to study electrical, communications and cyber systems at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Technology is part of the solution (to climate change), but the real solution is social,” said Gerald. If knowledge is accessible and not accumulated in the hands of a few big corporations, people can make more informed decisions, he added.

He said that no single solution such as sustainable energy will solve global warming. “We also have to look at carbon sequestration and products that don’t leave any carbon footprint. It has to be a whole systems approach.”

Debra, who grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side, said she often recalled the steel mills in her part of the town.

“I had east-west confusion,” she said, adding that she couldn’t see the sun through the fumes coming out of the factories.

She has stage four breast cancer and said she often wondered how many people who grew up in her neighborhood were diagnosed with cancer later in life.

Based on a survey conducted on Chicago’s Southeast Side, the Illinois Public Health Department reported an unusually high death rate among white men and women for lung, prostrate and bladder cancers in 1986.

Earlier, Debra used to attend pro-choice rallies and, as the daughter of Jewish immigrants, she said she felt strongly about immigrant rights. Environmental issues have always been a concern for her, as well. She was part of the North Branch Chicago River Restoration Project, aimed at protecting and restoring native Illinois ecosystems. Now, she grows native species in pots outside the house.

She said her concern about global warming is part of a bigger motto, “Tikkun Olam (Repair the World).”

Photo at top: Jeff Haverly and his dog Casey outside their house, which has been fitted with solar panels. (Madhurita Goswami/MEDILL)