A man walks home
A man walks home from the Columbia Road flower market in London. Photo: Erik Parker / Flickr.

Together with continued urbanization, the world population is aging rapidly. People aged 65 and older are expected to make up 22% of the total world population by 2050. The number of people aged 80 and older will also quadruple by 2050. These combined trends mean that more people will be exposed and vulnerable to climate change impacts in cities in the future.

Older people are not only among the prime contributors to climate change (e.g. baby boomers), 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 heat wave 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.

The UK 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.

Seasonal health and resilience

A new report by Arup examined seasonal health variation and resilience in the ‘urban old’ in the cities of London, New York and Shanghai. It addresses the exposure and vulnerability of the ageing populations in cities to extreme weather events and has developed a new Heat Vulnerability Index for London.

The report recommends ‘win-win’ measures which increase the resilience of elderly people while contributing to wider sustainability and resilience benefits for cities and people are prioritised where possible.

Win-win measures that increase the resilience of elderly people while contributing to wider sustainability and resilience benefits for cities and people. Selected examples include: green/blue infrastructure; awareness, information and education; design for future climate; community capabilities and engagement; and planning for weather.

Win-win measures to increase the resilience of elderly people and contribute to sustainability and resilience benefits. Source: ARUP.

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 price 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.

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 coordinated to deal with the range of impacts a changing climate will have on the lives of an aging population.

Government agencies and older people’s organizations need to make a concerted effort to improve the ability of older people to cope with the effects of climate change. Future policies should be assessed to ensure 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 increase the resilience of older people to the effects of a changing climate change.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.