Climate Change Poses Deadly Threat To Elderly

Los Angeles City Street Services Field Engineering Aide Winston Chu drinks cold water as his crew paves streets in a heat wave. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ DAMIAN DOVARGANES
Los Angeles City Street Services Field Engineering Aide Winston Chu drinks cold water as his crew paves streets in a heat wave. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ DAMIAN DOVARGANES

Elderly populations could be ten times more at risk of being exposed to a heat wave in 2090 than they are now if climate change isn’t abated, according to a new report.

The report, published by the U.K.’s Royal Society, looked at the worldwide population’s vulnerability to extreme weather events as climate change progresses, focusing specifically on the elderly. In addition to its findings on heat waves, the report found that by 2090, flood exposure events — which the report defines as the size of the vulnerable population multiplied by the frequency of the extreme weather event — will increase by about one billion per year, and drought exposure events will increase by about 600 million per year.

The researchers came to these findings by taking population growth and demographic change predictions as well as climate change projections into account. According to the report, changes in age demographics and where populations are living will have a significant effect on how vulnerable they are to climate change impacts.

“People are increasingly living in the wrong places, and it’s likely that extreme events will be more common,” lead author of the report Georgina Mace told the BBC. “For most hazards, population increase contributes at least as much as climate change — sometimes more. We are making ourselves more vulnerable whilst making the climate more extreme.”


The world’s elderly population is projected to rise over the next several decades — a concerning trend when coupled with climate change projections, since the elderly are among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. A September 2003 heatwave in France claimed nearly 15,000 lives — most of them elderly. Elderly people, especially if they live alone, may not be able to move to cooler locations during heat waves, and those suffering from dementia or mental illness may not be able to properly care for themselves.

“The main issue is that the elderly are not thinking about [the risks],” registered nurse Phillip Russertt told ABC in 2011. “They don’t get warm like we do; they tend to drink fewer fluids on a regular basis. They feel like they’re fine but that doesn’t mean they are not at risk.”

The report recommended that countries around the world make climate resilience a priority, and that governments should coordinate efforts with one another.

“If international organisations and national governments direct more funds to resilience-building, the need for costly disaster responses will be reduced,” the report states. “Internationally agreed metrics based on ‘inputs’ to resilience-building such as the proportion of the population with access to emergency shelters or proportion of the coast with intact coral reefs would help highlight where greater preventative expenditure is needed.”

The report isn’t the only one to warn about increased exposure to extreme weather events as climate change progresses. Already, the U.S. has had to struggle with a variety of costly extreme weather events: in 2011, the U.S. experienced 14 extreme weather events that caused more than $1 billion in damage, and in 2012, the country experienced 12 such events. Scientists predict that heat waves, droughts, and extreme rainfall and flooding will all become more frequent and more intense as the earth warms.