Hurricane season starts this month. Soon, talking about the weather and the impact of climate change will be not just about having a conversation, but about planning and, for some, urgency and action at a stage of life popularly described as a time to retire and to relax.
David and Rachel were years ahead of everyone in planning their retirement. Not just saving and investing, but knowing where they are going to live and what they are going to do when they get there. You could call them super planners. The kind of people financial advisors should love, while the rest of us, mere mortals, who don’t even know what time to pick up our kids from school, see them as somewhere between awesome and annoying.
More than a decade ago, while retirement was still a distant idea, David and Rachel bought a condominium in one of Florida’s beach towns. The layout, location and view were the things retirement brochures dream about. Here they would retire. In the meantime, the condominium would generate rental income from renters seeking killer views and falling out of bed to access the beach.
As she looks away as if imagining herself there overlooking the ocean at sunrise, Rachel reminisces: “We loved it there, we would come regularly.” David nodded in agreement, “yes, everything was nice, restaurants, shops…”
Then, years ago, they started noticing something that became more and more common. Sandbags piled along the road holding back the rising water. David noted, “It wasn’t hurricane season, there wasn’t even a recent storm, and there was water on the road every day.” He continued: “We couldn’t stay there, rumors and news reports suggested that climate change would only make flooding worse over time – we imagined we couldn’t get in or out of our apartment depending on the water level. .” Nervously, Rachel chimed in and said, “What if there was a hurricane, how high would the water be? What if we had to go to the doctor?” Reluctantly, they sold their retirement home.
Rachel and David, like many retirees, live life in the cone of uncertainty. No, not financial uncertainty, but uncertainty about climate change. The cone of uncertainty is often used to describe where hurricanes may land. We’re all familiar with television weather maps that show lines forming a cone of where a hurricane could “make” its blow and do the most damage. Now climate change has introduced a new cone of uncertainty about where to live in old age.
Graduate students in my Global Aging class and MIT AgeLab colleagues recently explored the question: Should climate change be a factor in retirement planning?
Consider this. According to NASA, there is evidence linking climate change to
extreme weather, such as hurricanes and storms that undoubtedly hit favorite coastal destinations. While it gets less media coverage than hurricanes, rising waters also impact retirement destinations favored by urban downsizers on the waterfronts of the Carolinas, New England, and even as far north as my friends in Nova Scotia and Maritimes.
Western retirement destinations are not immune. The warmer weather in desert climates threatens the livability of golf resorts year-round. Rising temperatures are also believed to contribute to conditions that increase the frequency and severity of wildfires that threaten retirement dreams in western mountains and canyons.
And even those who are aging-in-place (slang for staying in your current home until you retire) need to think about the impact of climate on their quality of life and the cost of retirement. For example, previous extreme heat waves in Chicago have killed many elderly people. For others, air conditioning, once used only a few days a year, is now used for a few months and is now an unplanned retirement expense.
How can climate change be factored into retirement?
Hard to believe, but there are age deniers out there. Yes, the science is in, we are all getting older. As we get older we are likely to have more chronic health issues, mobility issues, living alone and the need for things that were once niceties like air conditioning are now health needs.
Unfortunately, in major storms and other weather events, most of the people left behind, hospitalized, or killed are older adults. An estimated 70% of those who died in Hurricane Katrina were elderly people. Older people in Puerto Rico, especially older men, were most likely to die in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Similarly, half of the 1,500 who died during the Paris heatwave of 2019 were older adults.
Here are some starter questions to factor in climate change into your retirement.
Where to retire? Retirement is like real estate. The quality of retirement depends in part on three things: location, location, location. As much as it may be ‘knowable’, do you place your older future self and loved ones with limited mobility, frail health, special nutritional needs, at the center of the cone of climate insecurity?
Have you made plans for what could become an annual or even routine expense to prepare your home for a coming storm or seasonal weather? The cost can be more than just the price of plywood and nail guns for people in hurricane country. As we age, we may need to identify and hire professional services to prepare our homes for unpredictable weather conditions.
What about the price of repairs after flooding, wind and fire damage? Will rising insurance costs be a cost to consider in retirement planning as the weather changes? Will the necessary insurance even be available in some areas in the future?
Likewise, will air conditioning become a major cost driver for some, while increasing moisture, mold and mildew management costs will be a consideration for others?
On a more existential level, does your retiree dream destination community provide adequate emergency transportation, health, food and shelter for older people – not just services designed for younger, healthier and more mobile evacuees?
Retirement planning is about more than financing dreams and goals later in life. It’s about doing our best to plan and prepare for uncertainty. Many of us would never trade in a beach walk, a view over the mountains, the color spectrum in a canyon, or even the comforts of the home we’ve lived in for decades, but preparing for possible conditions and costs of climate change would be part of us now. retirement plan.