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