Hazel Chandler was at home taking care of her son when she began flipping through a document that detailed how burning fossil fuels would soon jeopardize the planet.
She can’t quite remember who gave her the report — this was in 1969 — but the moment stands out to her vividly: After reading a list of extreme climate events that would materialize in the coming decades, she looked down at the baby she was nursing, filled with dread.
“‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do something,’” she remembered thinking.
It was one of several such moments throughout Chandler’s life that propelled her into activist spaces — against the Vietnam War, for civil rights and women’s rights, and in support of other environmental causes.
She participated in letter-writing campaigns and helped gather others to write to legislators about vital pieces of environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, passed in 1970 and 1972, respectively. At the child care center she worked at, she helped plan celebrations around the first Earth Day in 1970.
Now at 78, after working in child care and health care for most of her life, she’s more engaged than ever. In 2015, she began volunteering with Elder Climate Action, which focuses on activating older people to fight for the environment. She then took a job as a consultant for the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization.
More recently, her activism has revolved around her role as the Arizona field coordinator of Moms Clean Air Force, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. Chandler helps rally volunteers to take action on climate and environmental justice issues, recruiting residents to testify and meet with lawmakers.
Her motivation now is the same as it was decades ago.
“When I look my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren, my children, in the eye, I have to be able to say, ‘I did everything I could to protect you,’” Chandler said. “I have to be able to tell them that I’ve done everything possible within my ability to help move us forward.”
Chandler is part of a largely unrecognized contingent of the climate movement in the United States: the climate grannies.
The most prominent example perhaps, is the actor Jane Fonda. The octogenarian grandmother has been arrested during climate protests a number of times and has her own PAC that funds the campaigns of “climate champions” in local and state elections.
Climate grannies come equipped with decades of activism experience and aim to pressure the government and corporations to curb fossil fuel emissions. As a result they, alongside women of every age group, are turning out in bigger numbers, both at protests and the polls. All of the climate grandmothers The 19th interviewed for this piece noted one unifying theme: concern for their grandchildren’s futures.
According to research conducted by Dana R. Fisher, director for the Center of Environment, Community and Equity at American University, while the mainstream environmental movement has typically been dominated by men, women make up 61 percent of climate activists today. The average age of climate activists was 52 with 24 percent being 69 and older.
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Part of the gender shift, she says, can be traced back to the mass demonstrations and protests that flourished in response to former President Donald Trump.
“Starting with the Women’s March and the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump … women are more engaged and women are more likely to be leaders,” Fisher said.
“Which is nice, because especially in the environmental arena it has historically been quite the dude fest.”
A similar trend holds true at the ballot box, according to data collected by the Environmental Voter Project, a nonpartisan organization focused on turning out climate voters in elections.
A report released by the Environmental Voter Project in December that looked at the patterns of registered voters in 18 different states found that after the Gen Z vote, people 65 and older represent the next largest climate voter group, with older women far exceeding older men in their propensity to list climate as their No. 1 reason for voting. The organization defines climate voters as those who are most likely to list climate change, the environment, or clean air and water as their top political priority.
“Grandmothers are now at the vanguard of today’s climate movement,” said Nathaniel Stinnett, founder of the Environmental Voter Project.
“Older people are three times as likely to list climate as a top priority than middle-aged people. On top of that, women in all age groups are more likely to care about climate than men,” he said. “So you put those two things together … and you can safely say that grandma is much more likely to be a climate voter than your middle-aged man.”
In Arizona, where Chandler lives, older climate voters make up 231,000 registered voters in the state. The presidential election in the crucial swing state was decided by just 11,000 votes, Stinnett noted.
“Older climate voters can really throw their weight around in Arizona if they organize and if they make sure that everybody goes to the polls,” he said.
In some cases, their identities as grandmothers have become an organizing force.
In California, 1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations formed in 2016, after older women from the Bay Area traveled to be in solidarity with Indigenous grandmothers protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
“When they came back, they decided to form an organization that would continue to mobilize women on behalf of the climate justice movement,” said Nancy Hollander, a member of the group.
1000 Grandmothers — in this case, the term encompasses all older women, not just the literal grandmothers — is rooted at the intersection of social justice and the climate crisis, supporting people of color and Indigenous-led causes in the Bay Area. The organization is divided into various working groups, each with a different focus: elections, bank divestments from fossil fuels, legislative work, nonviolent direct actions, among others.
They make frequent appearances alongside other climate activist groups at protests in front of banks like Wells Fargo, which finances oil and gas infrastructure, as well as participating in the annual Anti-Chevron day, protesting at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California.
For Hollander, 85, the work has been energizing, a continuation of the political activism she was a part of throughout her life. It’s also helped her mentally cope with the multiple crises the world is currently experiencing.
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“It facilitates a sense of agency and of me being in concert with my values and my ideals. It also puts me in touch with other people, other human beings, who are motivated by similar desires and commitments,” she said.
Many of the activists emphasized how important that sense of community is, especially when the work can lead one into a sense of despair over all that has been lost. Action, they agree, is an antidote, a way to cope with that feeling and show their care. Much of their work centers on protecting the younger generation — from the threats of the climate crisis, but also in activist spaces.
“There are women in the nonviolent direct action part of the organization who really do feel that elder women — it’s their time to stand up and be counted and to get arrested,” Hollander said. “They consider it a historical responsibility and put themselves out there to protect the more vulnerable.”
But 1000 Grandmothers credits another grandmother activist, Pennie Opal Plant, for helping train their members in nonviolent direct action and for inspiring them to take the lead of Indigenous women in the fight.
Plant, 66 — an enrolled member of the Yaqui of Southern California tribe, and of undocumented Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry — has started various organizations over the years, including Idle No More SF Bay, which she co-founded with a group of Indigenous grandmothers in 2013, first in solidarity with a group formed by First Nations women in Canada to defend treaty rights and to protect the environment from exploitation.
In 2016, Plant gathered with others in front of Wells Fargo Corporate offices in San Francisco, blocking the road in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, when she realized the advantages she had as an older woman in the fight.
As a police liaison — or a person who aims to defuse tension with law enforcement — she went to speak to an officer who was trying to interrupt the action. When she saw him maneuvering his car over a sidewalk, she stood in front of it, her gray hair flowing. “I opened my arms really wide and was like, are you going to run over a grandmother?”
A new idea was born: The Society of Fearless Grandmothers. Once an in-person training — it now mostly exists online as a Facebook page — it helped teach other grandmothers how to protect the youth at protests.
For Plant, the role of grandmothers in the fight to protect the planet is about a simple Indigenous principle: ensuring the future for the next seven generations.
“What we’re seeing is a shift starting with Indigenous women, that is lifting up the good things that mothers have to share, the good things that women that love children can share, that will help bring back balance in the world,” Plant said.
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The coordination between the two groups is one instance of intersectional work happening in the climate activism space. Though younger climate activists tend to be part of a more diverse movement, Fisher notes the movement is still predominantly White.
“People of color are mobilizing, but in many cases, they’re not mobilizing and engaging in activism that is specifically focused on climate,” Fisher said. “They may be engaging in work that is more climate justice, frontline community focused or against systemic racism, but it’s framed really differently than in most of the groups that are doing this kind of climate work … so there’s still a very big gulf there that needs to be crossed.”
Some of the older generation of activists see working on issues surrounding the climate as a way to try and correct some of their generation’s historical wrongs.
Kathleen Sullivan, an organizer with Third Act — a national organization started by environmentalist Bill McKibben — said that’s part of what has motivated her to become a climate activist in her later years.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t because I’ve been gifted with so much in life, and those gifts have come at a huge price,” she said, reflecting on how resource extraction, slavery, genocide, have built this country and led to the climate crisis. “And, when you wake up to that, first you weep and and then you say, ‘Oh my God, there’s a whole other way to live a life, another way to understand how to be on this planet.’”
Sullivan is one of approximately 70,000 people over the age of 60 who’ve joined Third Act, a group specifically formed to engage people 60 and older to mobilize for climate action across the country.
“This is an act of moral responsibility. It’s an act of care. And It’s an act of reciprocity to the way in which we are cared for by the planet,” Sullivan said. “It’s an act of interconnection to your peers, because there can be great joy and great sense of solidarity with other people around this.”