Worried about their grandkids' future, more seniors are taking up the climate fight
Groups like Seniors for Climate Action Now! are focusing their efforts on fossil fuel funders
On a Saturday morning in April, a clutch of seniors gathered on a busy corner in Toronto's financial district to raise a little hell — or "good trouble," in the words of 82-year-old John Hout.
The target of Hout's ire — and that of about 20 other silver-haired agitators — was RBC, the Canadian banking giant, for remaining heavily invested in the oil and gas industry and a major financier of the controversial Coastal GasLink project in northern B.C., which is being built on unceded Wet'suwet'en territory.
Wout came out to support the Wet'suwet'en because "they are on the front lines of both Indigenous rights, because that pipeline is being built across their territory without their permission, but also, it's a pipeline that's meant to expand fossil fuel extraction."
"That's all contributing to global warming, and instead of decreasing our carbon footprint, we're increasing it."
Also in the crowd was Peggy Lathwell, 78, who had come by bicycle.
"I'm terrified of what we're doing to the environment, to the Earth," she said. "I just see us heading like lemmings over the cliff."
The gathering was the work of Seniors for Climate Action Now! (SCAN), and after a brief address from lead organizer Nick De Carlo, the group marched down the street to join other protest groups outside RBC's iconic gold-coated headquarters at Wellington and Bay streets.
There, they hoisted placards, chanted anti-capitalist slogans and listened to a variety of speakers excoriate RBC's investment practices. At one point, a number of SCAN members even donned masks for a bit of street theatre, in which they spoofed a climate debate with bankers.
The April 1 action, dubbed Fossil Fools Day, took place in cities across Canada and was the latest in a series of demonstrations against RBC, now the world's biggest financier of fossil fuel projects, according to a new report by the advocacy group Banking on Climate Chaos.
It was also evidence that an older cohort has become galvanized to take climate action. Inspired by the passion and reach of young activists like Greta Thunberg, Canadian groups like SCAN, Climate Legacy and Grand(m)others Act to Save the Planet (GASP) are becoming increasingly visible and vocal.
"It's not that we've had to convince people that it's important to join our group," said De Carlo, 76. "People have gravitated to us."
Witnesses to a changing climate
De Carlo, who worked in the health and safety department of the Canadian Auto Workers union for 17 years, says he became environmentally conscious in the late 1980s, while helping to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals inside and outside factories.
He said the work of David Suzuki and U.S. environmental author Rachel Carson also greatly shaped his views.
Seniors for Climate Action Now! was born in July 2020, when De Carlo and four like-minded Toronto-area acquaintances signed a statement of purpose and posted it to Facebook.
"Our view was that the seniors demographic was concerned about the climate crisis [and that] we were probably the generation that's been alive through this massive growth of the environmental crisis … and we were also concerned about the future generations," said De Carlo. "And so we reached out on that assumption."
He says SCAN's Toronto chapter now has more than 315 members.
If we take "senior" to mean a person of retirement age, there are more than 7.3 million people in Canada 65 and over, according to the most recent figures from Statistics Canada. This cohort made up 19 per cent of the population in 2022 and is forecast to comprise 22.5 per cent by 2030.
Retirees taking social action is not an entirely new concept. The Raging Grannies, for example, formed in Victoria in the late 1980s to draw attention to nuclear proliferation, and the movement has since spread across North America to protest everything from war to genetically modified foods to police brutality.
But seniors have become an increasingly prominent part of the climate movement.
"The level of engagement and the form of it among older people seems to be changing dramatically," said Tim Gray, executive director of the Canadian advocacy group Environmental Defence.
Seniors are a prominent part of Extinction Rebellion, a U.K.-based protest group that has become notorious for blocking roadways and public buildings to raise awareness of fossil fuel funding.
On March 21, the U.S. seniors group Third Act, which has more than 50,000 members, helped organize the National Day of Action to Stop Dirty Banks, in which older Americans came out to protest fossil fuel financing by the country's four biggest banks: Bank of America, Chase, Citibank and Wells Fargo.
I don't know a movement leader more grounded and powerful than <a href="https://twitter.com/ThirdActOrg?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@ThirdActOrg</a> lead advisor Akaya Windwood. Here she is cutting up her bank card--and reminding us that, aside from climate change, the pollution from fossil fuels is responsible for one death in five on this planet. <a href="https://t.co/SVDT2MQ4N8">pic.twitter.com/SVDT2MQ4N8</a>—@billmckibben
About a week later, a group of climate-conscious retirees in Switzerland took their country to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, arguing their government must take more climate action. They hope that if the court rules in their favour, the decision could then be applied to all signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Bill McKibben, a longtime U.S. environmentalist and founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org, distilled the impetus for action in a recent column in the U.K.'s Guardian.
"We're following in the footsteps of young organizers who know that their lives are on the line," McKibben wrote. "For those of us who are older, it's our legacy."
'Once you know this, you can't unknow it'
According to the latest report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in March, we are likely to hit 1.5 C of warming since preindustrial levels sometime in the 2030s, which means heightened vulnerability to floods, drought and wildfires and threats to human health as a result of increased heat and humidity.
The UN points out that oil and gas and coal "are by far the largest contributor to global climate change." Fossil fuel use has been rising since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, but has grown precipitously since the 1950s.
While some protesters in the seniors cohort are lifelong environmentalists, others have simply been moved to act by the dire prospects for their offspring. In fact, a common sight at many of the anti-RBC protests has been people holding placards with photos of their grandchildren, a signal of whom they are fighting for.
Rolly Montpellier, 75, knows this impulse all too well. When the Ottawa resident first contemplated retirement, he assumed it would involve "a lot of fishing and golfing." But around the time his grandchildren were born, he started thinking about the world they might inhabit in adulthood.
In educating himself on the causes and consequences of global warming — from rising sea levels to extreme heat — Montpellier came to a chilling conclusion.
"Once you know this, you can't unknow it," he said. "So I just thought, for the rest of my life, I'm going to try to repair some of the damage that my generation has caused."
Montpellier, who worked for decades as a public servant and ended his career as a superintendent of business and finance for a school board, says he now spends 30 to 40 hours a week on climate activism, which includes organizing with several climate organizations, publishing blog articles on the website Below 2 C and lobbying government for policies that hasten the transition away from fossil fuels.
Last year, he took part in a stunt in which he and other activists delivered a $6.8-billion invoice for climate damages to the Ottawa offices of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).
Montpellier admits a lot of this work stems from "feeling guilty about my generation having been at the wheel, so to speak. How in the hell did we let this happen?"
'As an older person, you've seen it'
Norman Meade, a Métis elder-in-residence at the University of Manitoba who provides Indigenous knowledge on environmental issues, says a key reason the ecological problem has become so acute is that people haven't really considered the long-term consequences of our modern way of life — what's known as seventh-generation thinking.
"When we talk about seven generations, I'm not even talking about my great-grandchildren — I'm talking about the children that aren't even born yet," said Meade, 78.
"The reason the broader culture doesn't think about it much, or very deeply, is because [society is] money-driven."
Gray from Environmental Defence says one explanation for the surge in seniors' climate action is that these folks have lived long enough to observe the effects of global warming and biodiversity loss.
"It's so tangible now, and for people who have been around for six, seven decades, it's really quite shocking," he said.
Meade grew up in Manigotagan, about 150 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, and can testify to what life was like in his community before companies came in and started extracting timber and gold.
"As an older person, you've seen it," he said. "We used to go down to the Manigotagan River and just take the water.… Now, it's gotta go through the treatment plant in order for it to be potable water."
Montpellier says older people have a moral responsibility to do their part to protect the planet, and one way they can do that is with their investments — particularly pensions.
For example, Montpellier has raised concerns about the fossil fuel holdings of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) at the fund's annual meeting. He says seniors can do the same with private pension funds.
According to the 2020 Canadian census, people 55 to 64 and those 65 and over hold the most money in private pension assets ($1.3 trillion and $1.18 trillion, respectively).
"I think that this is a cohort that has been underestimated and overlooked," said Shilpa Tiwari, founder of the Toronto-based strategy consultancy Inicio Inc. and a steering committee member of the charity Shift: Action on Pension Wealth and Planet Health.
Exerting financial pressure
A lot of seniors simply aren't aware of what the banks are doing, says Charles Bull, a retired Anglican priest in Halifax who sits on an environment committee for the Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP).
But "we tend to have assets, and that would give us a certain leverage with the banks, I would think."
Plus, "seniors vote, and politicians know that."
Montpellier's main project right now is trying to create a national environmental movement along the lines of Third Act — which helps organize groups to effect social change — "to mobilize seniors to be more active in climate action, on the front line."
But Judi Wyatt, a 71-year-old member of the Kingston, Ont., chapter of Seniors for Climate Action Now!, knows the challenges of rallying people to the cause.
She recalls sending out a group email to 35 friends and acquaintances in an attempt to rouse interest in SCAN. Only two people responded. As for the non-respondents, "it was never even raised the next time I saw them," she said.
Bull sympathizes. "There's going to be a whole range of seniors. Some will say, 'I've done my bit, I'm going to play golf, don't bother me.'"
Wyatt laments the fact that for many people in her age bracket, readily available information on the climate crisis hasn't been compelling enough.
"Facts have not worked," Wyatt said. "Then you have to say, 'What motivates people?' And I think people are motivated by [wanting] meaning in their lives. And they're motivated by love.
"And so that's why we seem to be getting some traction by having large placards with pictures of our grandchildren on them."