Leading climate change activist looks to mobilize older Americans

·Senior Climate Editor
·7-min read

With a younger generation increasingly focused on the problem of rising global temperatures, prominent environmental activist and author Bill McKibben is launching a new grassroots movement to mobilize older Americans to combat climate change and to work on related social justice issues.

McKibben, 60, has partnered with co-founders Akaya Windwood, a 65-year-old nonprofit consultant, and Vanessa Arcara, a millennial who worked at 350.org, to mobilize older Americans. Their new group, known as Third Act, is having a soft launch this week and a full-fledged rollout early next year.

“Third Act is for people like me — that is to say over the age of 60 — the baby boomers and the Silent Generation above them,” McKibben told Yahoo News. “It’s very clear now that young people are — not just on climate, but on other important issues like civil rights — doing what needs to be done. Older people need to not just assign the hardest problems on the planet to 17-year-olds as their homework.”

McKibben has spent the majority of his life defending the environment. He began his career as a writer for the New Yorker magazine and as an author of books such as “The End of Nature,” one of the first popular books about climate change. In 2008, McKibben and a group of students from Middlebury College, where he teaches as a distinguished scholar, founded 350.org, a group that would go on to play a prominent role in efforts to stop climate change, including organizing the massive 2014 “People’s Climate March” in New York City.

But McKibben is relatively atypical for a climate change activist in at least one way: He’s a baby boomer. And while boomers are stereotyped as ex-hippies who fetishize organic produce, they are on average more politically conservative than younger Americans and they are less likely to rate climate change as a top concern or engage in activism to address it.

Urging governments, universities, corporations and other powerful institutions to change their ways in the face of climate change has become an increasingly common focus of activism in recent years, but as anyone at the recent large protests surrounding the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland can tell you, they tend to share a common trait — the crowds skew young, often very young.

That’s a problem for the climate movement, since older Americans have the most money, free time and political influence to contribute.

Bill McKibben
350.org's co-founder Bill McKibben at an event at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. (Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns via Getty Images)

McKibben and his partners hope to get people who may have marched for civil rights or against the Vietnam War to reengage in the activism of their youth and to join the millennial generation and Gen Z in their effort to prevent catastrophic climate change. The other main initial area of focus will be defending voting rights, from Republican-led efforts to make voting more difficult such as rollbacks of mail-in voting.

Windwood told Yahoo News that they chose those two seemingly disparate causes because both are key civil rights issues, because both the negative effects of climate change and voter disenfranchisement fall very disproportionately on people of color. “What weaves these two together… is racial equity and justice,” she said. “We will always be asking that question: how does race, nationality, play out here?”

Polls show that millennials and members of Gen Z — roughly speaking, that would be Americans born since 1980 — are the most likely to say that climate change should be a top concern for the government. But voter turnout goes up with age. In last year’s presidential election, the U.S. Census Bureau reported, “Voter turnout was highest among those ages 65 to 74 at 76.0%, while the percentage was lowest among those ages 18 to 24, at 51.4%.”

Wealth is even more skewed by age. In December 2020, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reported, the year before that households headed by 25- to 35-year-olds had $24,000 in median wealth, compared to $269,000 among families ages 65 to 75.

So, McKibben reasons, to really move powerful institutions to confront climate change, older people must get involved. “[Older people] need to start taking real responsibility, in part because we caused the problems and in part because they can’t be solved without us,” he said. “They vote in such large numbers and they control such an absurd percentage of the nation’s financial assets.”

Activists lead with a float while taking part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New York September 21, 2014. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Activists lead with a float while taking part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New York City. Sept. 21, 2014. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

“I didn’t know that our generation — and I’m a boomer — is really longing for a way to contribute, and there’s a lot of excitement out there,” Windwood said.

“I figured we might be a little sleepy, or tired, or ready to get our golf shoes on for those that could afford that,” she said. “But, within days of Bill just casually mentioning it in one of his articles, there were like 300-400 people [who] just signed up within hours. And I think it took us all by surprise.”

The name “Third Act” is drawn from the idea that people who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s had a revolutionary first act in their youth, and that after a more materialistic and inward-looking second act, a return to pressing for social change will be their next one.

“This is potentially a very interesting generation, and its first act was witness to or participated in, profound cultural, social, political transformations: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the first Earth Day,” McKibben said. “Second act relies perhaps somewhat more committed to consumerism than citizenship.”

“So we emerge into our third act with plenty of resources, about 70 percent of the financial assets in the country belong to baby boomers or the Silent Generation,” he continued. “We emerge with lots of skills and we emerge with grandkids, and ready to try and change that legacy, so that we’re not the first generations that leave the world in a much worse place than we found it.”

Environmentalist Bill McKibben, center right
McKibben, center right, marches with thousands to the White House urging then-President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Feb. 17, 2013. (Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images)

To reach those “experienced Americans,” as McKibben calls them in the group’s promotional video, they have enlisted the support of well-known figures such as actress Jane Fonda and TV producer Norman Lear. Of course, Fonda and Lear have always been engaged in progressive activism, and it remains to be seen whether Third Act will actually inspire previously disengaged seniors, or just provide another outlet for those already inclined to get involved.

But even just deploying those more activist seniors could have a significant effect. Watching the still incomplete struggle in Congress to pass President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal that would invest in clean energy, and the unsatisfying outcome at the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference, McKibben is convinced that climate activism needs to move from the political system to choking off the money supply to the fossil fuel industry.

“The youth at Fridays for the Future coalition were calling on the banks to stop lending to the fossil fuel industry and doing demonstrations outside a bunch of branches, and they say they’re gonna be ramping this up in the year ahead,” McKibben said, referring to the youth climate movement co-founded by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. “Well, we were very eager to get out there in the street and support them, because if you’re a banker and you look out and you see a crowd of 19-year-olds, that’s a threat in one way. You want these kids taking out your credit card … you want them coming to work at your bank. You don’t want a bad name among 19-year-olds. But if they look out and see a bunch of 69-year-olds, that’s a different kind of threat. They know whose money is in their vault.”

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