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Hurricane season has begun. Soon talking about the weather and the impact of climate change will not be about simply making conversation, but about planning and, for some, urgency and action at a life stage popularly described as a time to retire and relax.


David and Rachel Were Years Ahead of Everyone Else in Planning Their Retirement

Not just saving and investing, but in knowing where they were going to live and what they were going to do when they got there. You might call them super planners. The kind of people that financial professionals must love, while the rest of us pure mortals, who don’t even know what time to pick up our kids at school, view them as somewhere between amazing and annoying.

More than a decade ago, while retirement was a distant idea, David and Rachel bought a condominium in one of Florida’s beach towns. The layout, location, and views were the things retirement brochure dreams are made of. This was where they would retire. In the interim, the condominium would produce rental income from tenants in search of killer views and fall out of bed access to the beach.

Looking away as if imagining herself there overlooking the ocean at sunrise, Rachel reminisces “We loved it there, we would visit regularly.” David, nodding his head in agreement, “yeah, everything fun was there, restaurants, shops...”

Then, Years Ago, They Started to Notice Something That Became Increasingly Commonplace Sandbags stacked along the road holding back rising waters. David noted, “It wasn’t hurricane season, there wasn’t even a recent storm, and water on the road was there every day.” He went on, “We couldn’t stay there. Rumors and news reports suggested that climate change was only going to make the flooding worse over time—we were imagining not being able to get in, or out, of our condo depending on the water level.” Nervously Rachel chimed in saying, “What if there were to be a hurricane, how high would the water be then? What if we needed to get to the doctor?” Reluctantly, they sold their retirement dream home.

Rachel and David, like many people in retirement, are managing life in the cone of uncertainty. No, not financial uncertainty, but climate change uncertainty. The cone of uncertainty is often used to describe where hurricanes might land. We are all familiar with the television weather maps that show lines that form a cone of where a hurricane ‘might’ deliver its punch and do the most damage.


Now Climate Change Has Introduced a New Cone of Uncertainty Around Where to Live in Older 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, evidence is emerging linking climate change to extreme weather, such as hurricanes and storms most assuredly affecting favorite coastal retirement destinations. Although garnering less media coverage than hurricanes, rising waters are also affecting 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. Hotter weather in desert climates threatens the livability of year- round golf resorts. Rising temperatures are also believed to contribute to conditions that increase the frequency and ferocity of wildfires that menace retirement dreams in western mountains and canyons.

And, even those that are aging-in-place (jargon for staying in your current home through retirement) must think about how climate may affect their quality of life as well as costs in retirement. Previous extreme heatwaves in Chicago, for example, cost many older people their life. For others, air conditioning, once used only for a few days a year, is now used for a few months and is now an unplanned retirement expense.


How Might 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 age we are likely to have more chronic health conditions, mobility challenges, live alone, and the need for things that were once niceties, e.g., air conditioning, are now health necessities. Sadly, in major storms, and other weather events, the majority of people left behind, hospitalized, or killed are older adults. An estimated 70% of those who died in Hurricane Katrina were older people. Older people in Puerto Rico, particularly elderly men, were most likely to die in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Likewise, of the 1,500 who died during the 2019 Paris heatwave, half were older adults.


Here Are Some Starter Questions to Factor Climate Change Into Your Retirement.

Where to retire? Retirement is like real estate. The quality of retirement is, in part, dependent upon three things, location, location, location. As much as it can be ‘knowable,” are you putting your older future self and loved ones with impaired mobility, fragile health, special nutrition needs, in the center of the cone of climate uncertainty?

Have you planned for what might become an annual, or even routine, expense of preparing your home for a coming storm or seasonal weather events? The costs may be more than simply 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 to respond to unpredictable weather events. What about the price of repairs after flooding, wind, and fire damage? Will the rising cost of insurance be an expense to consider in retirement planning as the weather changes? In some areas, will the necessary insurance even be available in the future?

Similarly, will air conditioning become a major cost factor for some while increasing moisture, mold, and mildew management costs be a consideration for others?

On a more existential level, does your retirement dream destination community offer 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 In Later Life

It’s about doing the best we can to plan and prepare for uncertainty. Many of us would never trade in a beach walk, a view over the mountains, the spectrum of color in a canyon, or even the comforts of the home we have lived in for decades, but preparing for possible conditions and costs of climate change should now be part of our retirement plan.

Author Headshot

Joseph F. Coughlin, Ph.D. is Director of the MIT AgeLab. His research examines how the disruptive demographics of an aging society, social trends, and technology will shape future innovations in business and government. Dr. Coughlin teaches in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning as well as Sloan School of Management Advanced Management Program. Dr. Coughlin advises a wide variety of global firms in financial services, healthcare, leisure and travel, luxury goods, real estate, retail, technology, and transportation. He’s also a Senior Contributor to Forbes and writes regularly for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal. 

Next Step

Think about where you plan to live in retirement. Consider if climate change could be a risk in your retirement location.


MIT AgeLab: How to Prepare for 8,000 Days of Retirement >

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