Growing Old in a Changing Climate

Older People in a Flood THE ageing of our society and the changing of our climate are two key inevitabilities of this century. However, the effects of climate change will not be evenly distributed, as certain groups in society will be affected more than others. The recent heavy snow in the UK and the heatwave in Australia show that older people are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Older people are not only among the prime contributors to climate change, but also potentially some of the first casualties. They may be physically, financially and emotionally less able to cope the effects of a changing climate than the rest of the population.

The August 2003 European heatwave clearly demonstrated the consequences of a rapid rise in temperature which reached 40°C and resulted in the death of 14,802 elderly people in France, and 2,139 in England and Wales.Heatwave

The June 2007 floods showed the impact severe weather events can have on local communities and services. Older people, especially those without the resources to cope, will be affected more by such events. The insecurity and heightened exposure to threats posed by a changing climate are further compounded for older people by their reduced capacity for coping independently.

The effects of climate change, such as high temperatures, storm damage and poor access to public services due to extreme weather events, pose a threat to our quality of life in old age. How well we will deal with the effects of a changing climate will be determined by our state of health, income, where we live, family support network and access to, and quality of, key essential services. As we grow older, we are faced increasingly with declining health and physical strength, disability, loss of income and bereavement.

We can adapt to climate change and old age separately, but that risks seeking solutions in one area that might adversely affect another. For example, we might drive up the cost of fuel in order to restrain usage but impose, in consequence, on our older population, an inability to adequately keep warm and pricing them out of the car-using public when that might be their only option to get out and about.

The issues around climate change, and the issues about an ageing society, can be described in isolation, but we need to bring them together if we are to protect older people. Energy use is of particular concern as an increasing number of older people are facing fuel poverty.

The carbon footprint of those aged 50 to 64 years, and 65 to 74 years, are the two highest compared to other age groups. Clearly, our carbon reduction strategies need to give due attention to the particular characteristics of these groups. But older people must be part of the solution too: can we make it easier for them to conserve energy, and can we harness their interest and enthusiasm to “make the world a fit place for our grandchildren”, and build a positive force for the future?

Older people are willing to contribute to tackling climate change. However, there is no coherent policy response which addresses the interface between climate change and older people. Policies need to be sharpened, focused and co-ordinated to deal with the range of impacts a changing climate will have on the lives of an ageing population.

Government agencies and older people’s organisations need to make a concerted effort to improve the ability of older people to cope with the effects of climate change. It calls on government to risk assess all future policies so that they do not undermine government targets to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and put older people at risk.

If we are to meet the challenge of growing old in a changing climate, then older people need to have an active role. We need to make it easier for them to conserve energy, use public transport and maintain crucial social networks that will help them better cope with the effects of climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009

Extreme Weather in Two Lands

Big Snow in LondonAS the UK struggles with the worst snow for six years across large parts of England, down under the Australians are having to deal with the worst heatwave in decades, with temperatures in excess of 43C (109F) in the south-eastern part of the country. Health officials in South Australia are blaming the high temperatures for an increase in the number of sudden deaths among the elderly. While in the north near Queensland authorities are monitoring a low pressure system that could develop into the state’s second cyclone within a week. More than 60 per cent of Queensland is covered by floodwaters and more devastation is expected. Already there are almost 3,000 properties in the north of Townsville surrounded by floodwaters caused by ex-tropical cyclone Ellie.

Australian heatwaveThe snowfall in England resulted in schools being closed, public transport closures and airport delays. The heatwave in Victoria is the worst since 1908. Wildfires in the west of the state made worse by dry conditions and sweeping winds destroyed 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) of forest and grassland, forcing residents to flee their homes, emergency workers. The high temperatures resulted in a massive increase the use of air conditioners which have claimed to have caused a breakdown in Melbourne’s electricity grid – leaving half a million homes without power. The economic cost of the heatwave in Melbourne is estimated to be 100,000 Australian dollars.

In the UK the big snow is estimated to have cost the country £1bn in lost productivity due to approximately 20 per cent of the country’s workforce is believed to have taken Monday off due to the extreme weather. Many businesses in London and the south-east were forced to operate on a limited basis with transport services in chaos after up to eight inches of snow. Nearly half of businesses in London were operating at only 50 per cent capacity.

These recent extreme weather events clearly demonstrate our vulnerability to the impacts of a sudden change in climate. The social, economic and environmental impact of such extreme weather should be a warning to us all about what we can expect in the future as the planet warms up and the climate changes. We need to act now to prevent the possibility of run away climate change. We need to make the necessary investment to ensure the infrastructure, social and emergency services can adequately cope with extremes change in the weather.

© Gary Haq 2009

No Time to Waste – Returning to the Good Life

earth-clock-01AS a child the school summer holidays seemed an eternity. Time seemed to pass very slowly. These days as an adult its hard to keep up with all the things one has to do. How many times have you heard people complain we “just don’t have the time”?

Psychologist William James’ explanation is that children experience everything for the first time and that all experiences are new. Their intense perception of the world around them means that times goes slowly. As adults we have fewer new experiences, life is more familiar and less information is taken in and time is less stretched. While there are obvious cognitive psycholgoical explanations to our perception of time there are also other factors at play.

As a child growing up in the 1970s there was only three TV channels which only ran for a limited number of hours. We did not have a computer, mobile phone, video player or DVD to distract us. Most of the time was enjoyed playing out in the streets with other friends. On TV there was a popular sitcom called The Good Life which described the experiences of Tom and Barbara who have had enough of the rat race and decide to become self-sufficient. They convert their garden into a farm, keep pigs and chickens and grow their own crops.the-good-life1

Life seemed a lot simpler back then but perhaps I am looking back through rose-tinted spectacles?. Afterall, I did not have to worry about paying bills, going to work or doing house work. Despite all this, I do feel that life has speeded up.

streetsThis is evident in our breakdown in our sense of community. In the cobbled streets of inner city Salford (UK) where I grew up we knew or had a good idea who lived in the 40-plus houses there. These days I only know three of my neighbours. This is partly due to people being more mobile and not staying in one place too long and partly due to being more private individuals. No longer do we have the time for idle chit chat. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland we are rushing around saying we are late.

In his Novel Momo Michael Ende wrote about a mysterious young orphaned girl, who arrives in a small town and notices that the inhabitants are starting to change, becoming obsessed with time and money. Momo discovers that the culprits are the “Grauen Herren”, sinister, ghost-like men who are stealing time. The effects were dramatic. The village barber found that:

he was becoming increasingly restless and irritable. The odd thing was that, no matter how much time he saved, he never had any to spare; in some mysterious way, it simply vanished. Imperceptibly at first, but then quite unmistakably, his days grew shorter and shorter. Almost be­fore he knew it, another week had gone by, another month, and another year, and another and another.”

In his article entitled Time Pollution, Prof. John Whitelegg attempts to explain the paradox that the more people try to save time, the less they seem to have? Whitelegg argues:

Time is central to notions of sustainability. A sustainable city or a sustainable transport policy or a sustainable economy cannot be founded on economic principles which, through their monetarisation of time, orientate society towards higher levels of motorisation, faster speeds and greater consumption of space. The fact that these characteristics produce energy-intensive societies and pollution is only part of the problem. They also distort value systems, elevate mobility above accessibility, associate higher speeds and greater distances with progress, and dislocate communities and social life.”

There is no doubt that our lack of time has contributed to the community disintegration that has been occuring across Europe and other western countries in the last few decades. Perhaps we need to change our perception of time and spend more time being rather than doing. A global recession may provide that window of opportunity to reassess our values and lifestyles and perhaps like Tom and Barbara we can return to the “Good Life” that many of us remember.

© Gary Haq 2009

Staying Green in a Global Recession

Drax Power Station in YorkshireWHERE there is a will, there is a way. Unfortunately, when it comes to tackling climate change, the Government and the public may not have the will to make the radical changes necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Faced with the credit crunch, global recession and a decline in personal finances, we may feel more inclined to abandon our green intentions.

In the short-term, this may provide some financial and political relief but we will have to pay in the long-term when faced with the human, environmental and economic cost of climate change.

The Stern report on the economic impact of climate change showed that the dangers of unabated climate change would cost the equivalent of at least five per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) each year.

In contrast, the costs of action to avoid the worst impacts of climate change can be limited to around one per cent of global GDP each year. People would pay a little more for carbon-intensive goods, but
our economies could essentially continue to grow strongly.

The UK has shown some leadership with the Climate Change Bill. We are the only country in the world that has made the national long-term goal of a 80 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 a legally binding target.

In contrast, the idea of personal carbon allowances, whereby people would have to trade in credits if they wanted to exceed their own carbon quota, has been shelved. Carbon allowances are seen as being effective and fairer than green taxes. However, the Government claims that while the scheme has appeal, it would be too expensive and complicated to implement.

For the past year, Louise, a 52-year-old secondary school teacher from York, has been struggling to reduce her carbon footprint. From fitting energy efficient light bulbs, recycling waste to reducing her car use – she has followed the advice. While she has made considerable progress, she has not found it easy. “I keep finding really good reasons why everyone else should be doing the hard work,” says Louise.

She is not alone. While we may rush to embrace the fashionable
idea of being green, our enthusiasm begins to waver when faced with the many small, but numerous difficulties we encounter in practice. A report by the Worldwide Fund for Nature questions whether promoting what it calls “simple and painless steps” for reasons of self-interest (e.g. lower heating bills) may be preventing us from engaging in more significant and potentially inconvenient and costly changes to our lifestyles.

It claims that those who engage in environmentally friendly behaviour in pursuit of goals such as personal growth and community
involvement tend to be more motivated and are likely to sustain their behaviour in the long term. While this may be the case, not everyone has the ability, time or inclination to lead a green lifestyle.

Cycling in HollandSetting emission reduction targets is easy; it is more difficult to implement the changes that will result in the required emission reductions. We only need to look to our European neighbours to see that the knowledge and technology exists to reduce carbon emissions. The Netherlands has an integrated transport system where walking, cycling and public transport provides realistic and affordable alternatives to the car.

The German green dot system requires manufacturers to take back the packaging of their goods, requiring them to reuse or recycle. In Scandinavia, energy-efficient homes are the norm rather than the exception. We can no longer claim ignorance on how to achieve a low carbon society. What is lacking is political will.

Politicians need to show leadership and take the tough decisions to make a low carbon society a reality. If we are to kick the carbon habit, then the low carbon option needs to be the cheaper, convenient and easier option for all. We will not longer have to think about being green, as it will be the only option.

In the face of economic difficulties, we should not be distracted by short-term issues but focus on the long-term consequences of our actions. We will need to accept that if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change then fundamental changes are required to reduce our carbon dependency.

© Gary Haq 2009

Darwin, Deep Ecology and the Bible

Charles DarwinTHIS year marks the bicentenary of the birth of the naturalist Charles Darwin and the passing of Norwegian philosopher and founder of deep ecology – Arne Næss.

In his seminal work, ‘On the Origin of Species’ Darwin challenged the Judeao-Christian tradition that humans were created in the image of God: “Then God said, Let us make man in our image … in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Darwin explained that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors. This occurred through the process of natural selection whereby organisms most suited to their environment survive and reproduce and pass their advantages to their offspring.

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

Darwin’s theory of universal common descent based on evolutionary principles placed humankind as part of the tree of life rather than separate to it.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Arne NaessArne Næss’s work also challenged the Judeao-Christian tradition and the anthropocentric (human-centred) view of the planet. In the book Genesis the first words God is alleged to have make to humankind were:

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Since then nature has been used commodity to be traded to meet human needs which has resulted in our current global ecological crisis. Næss believed that humans have no right to reduce the richness and diversity of nature except to meet vital needs.

He argued that every being, whether human, animal or vegetable has an equal right to live and to blossom. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes. We should not see the world from the narrow viewpoint of ourselves but should see ourselves as part of an ecospheric whole. We should move from anthropocentric to an ecocentric view of the world.

Both Darwin and Næss show we are part of the diversity of life and cannot be separated from it. If we took a more ecocentric approach to policy making then perhaps we could appreciate the inherent value in life itself rather striving for an increasingly higher standard of living.

© Gary Haq 2009

President Obama’s Green Rethoric

HE 44th president of the United States (US), Barack Obama, promised change on the campaign trail especially with regard to the US’s Green credentials. If President Obama is serious about his new environmental agenda then he will need to change rather than defend the US way of life. Lets hope for the sake of the planet that Obama can deliver his agenda of change.

The Art of ConsumptionTHE 44th president of the United States (US), Barack Obama, promised change on the campaign trail especially with regard to the US’s Green credentials. He set out ambitious environmental targets which include ensuring that 10 per cent of US electricity supply comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 per cent by 2025; introducing a cap-and-trade programme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 per cent by 2050; creation of 5 million new jobs by investing $150bn in green technology companies over the next 10 years; target to save more oil than US imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years and 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015.

It is estimated that Americans constitute 5 per cent of the world’s population but consume 24 per cent of the world’s energy. According to the American Associate for the Advancement of Science , the United States is the world’s largest consumer in absolute terms. It takes the greatest share of 11 out of 20 major traded commodities. These include corn, coffee, copper, lead, zinc, tin, aluminum, rubber, oil seeds, oil and natural gas.

Global Per Capita Consumption

It is also the largest per capita consumer. If we look at meat consumption China with the world’s largest population is the highest overall producer and consumer of meat. However, the US has the largest per capita consumption of meat. An average US citizen consumes more than three times the global average of 37 kilos per person per year. This is in sharp comparison with Africans who consume less than half the global average, and South Asians consume the least, at under 6 kilos per person per year.

President Obama's Inaugural Speech In his augural speech President Obama defended the American way of life: “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is If stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

If President Obama is serious about his new environmental agenda then he will need to change rather than defend the US way of life. Lets hope for the sake of the planet that Obama can deliver his agenda of change.

© Gary Haq 2009

What is Human Ecology?

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden As a Human Ecology graduate I was recently surprised to hear the term “Human Ecology” being used by the media. It was used with reference to Pope Benedict XVI Christmas speech where he was explaining the need to respect human nature with regard to the order of being ‘man’ or ‘woman’:

We need something like human ecology, meant in the right way. The Church speaks of human nature as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and asks that this order is respected.”

He suggested there is a need to save humankind from a destructive blurring of gender roles is as important as saving the rainforests. He explained that defending God’s creation was not limited to saving the environment, but also about protecting man from self-destruction.

The Pope makes a distinction between humans and the environment. If there were no environment then we would not be around. I am not so concerned about the blurring of gender roles. I am more concerned about saving ourselves from committing ecological suicide or ecocide. If we are to stop this then a concerted effort is needed from everyone including the church. Over population and over consumption of the earth’s natural resources are the key factors which will determine the fate of humankind.

Taking a holistic human ecological perspective is the only way forward to deal with the key issues. We need to understand our interaction with our social, political, economic and physical environment. Why we behave the way we do and what we can do to change? There are many definitions of human ecology but for me it is an academic discipline that deals with the relationship between humans, human societies, and their natural, social and created environments.

I was fortunate to study Human Ecology at Huddersfield University. I was attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of the course and the focus on local and global issues. Huddersfield was the first and only institute of higher education to offer this type of course in the UK. Sadly, Huddersfield abandoned the course but human ecology lives on at the Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh.

For some human ecology might seem an old term from the 1960s especially when we hear so much these days about sustainable development. However, understanding our human ecology is more relevant now than ever.

© Gary Haq 2009