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.
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 40C and resulted in the death of 14,802 elderly people in France, and 2,139 in England and Wales.
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.
As we grow older, we are faced increasingly with declining health and physical strength, disability, loss of income and bereavement.
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.
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?
A national workshop on older people and climate change, held early this year in York, showed that older people are willing to contribute to tackling climate change.
They think government should do more to address the issue and they want to be part of the policy-making process because they have huge amounts of experience to draw upon.
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.
Our report outlines five recommendations and calls on government agencies and older people's organisations 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.
Homes of older people need to be climate-change-proofed to increase energy efficiency and tackle fuel poverty.
Many older people have been affected by the trend towards out-of-town shopping centres, closure of post offices and withdrawal of bus services.
Local authorities have a responsibility to ensure that older people have safer, stronger and healthier communities. Efficient and reliable public transport for older people is needed to ensure that they can maintain independence and connect to friends, family and wider community.
Finally, leadership on older people and climate change is required to outline a national policy framework to focus and co-ordinate action.
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.
Dr Gary Haq is a Senior Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York, and author of the report Growing Old in a Changing Climate. The report is available at www.climatetalk.org.uk.