Older people excluded from climate response, says UN

Fallen trees on a street in in Leersum, the Netherlands, where a storm caused damage on 18 June 2021. (Keystone/EPA/Sem Van Der Wal)

Older people are discriminated against and are often left out of programmes and policies designed to tackle the impacts of climate change, a new UN report has found.

Older people are among the worst hit by heatwaves, floods, hurricanes and other climate related hazards, yet governments are failing to consider their needs, according to a report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights presented on Wednesday.

“Climate change has particularly significant implications for people over 65, especially when physical, political, economic and social factors make them vulnerable,” said UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in presenting the study before the Human Rights Council, which is meeting virtually this month from Geneva.

In 2019, there were 703 million men and women aged 65 or over worldwide, a figure which is expected to double by 2050, according to UN estimates. As climate change continues to accelerate, wiping out crops and livestock, pushing ecosystems to the brink of collapse and forcing millions to flee their homes, elderly people and other marginalised groups are the ones to bear the brunt.

People over 65 have greater chances of dying during a heatwave, cold weather, hurricanes and other disasters, according to the report. During the 2003 heatwave that caused around 14,000 additional deaths in France, those aged over 75 made up 80 per cent of casualties. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on the eastern coast of the United States in 2005, 75 per cent of people killed were over 60 years old.

When disaster strikes. During disasters, care services are disrupted, and evacuations of people that have difficulty moving can be complicated. “Physical challenges that have only minor effects on day-to-day life may become serious impediments in an emergency, limiting older persons’ mobility and adaptive capacity,” the report states.

Shelters also lack the adequate accommodations for their specific needs such as having toilettes close by or allowing them to stay near other family members.

Mami Mizutori, head of the UN Office for disaster risk reduction, who spoke at the session, stressed the need for disaster planning to address mobility and transportation challenges.

The report also points out that older people take longer to recover physically from disasters and their mental health is particularly affected. According to studies cited in the document, they have higher rates of post traumatic stress disorder after a flood and are more likely to suffer from “survivors’ guilt” after losing children or grandchildren during a hazard.

The digital divide can also deepen inequalities as climate and disaster-related information services are increasingly using new technologies which older people have a harder time adapting to. This can also be a challenge for them when having to relocate to other places due to an extreme weather event.

Left behind by the transition. Policies designed to reduce global carbon emissions have also failed to include older people in the transition.While they have more chances of living in homes with insufficient heating or cooling systems, they have less access to cleaner and healthier power sources.

The report points out that transition policies to cleaner energies often don’t include provisions to help older people make the shift.

Changes in the way we produce and consume food are also having an impact on older people. Since they are more likely to live in poverty and rely on fixed incomes, they are overburdened by the rising prices of food. The loss of cultivable land because of climate change also means that they can no longer rely on what is for many their primary source of food and work.

Women, indigenous peoples and other minorities are the worst off. The report says that older people are a broad category and not all experience the same hardships. In some countries, for example, old women are accused of witchcraft and blamed for extreme weather events. In the United States, non-white older people have higher risks of heat-related mortality.

Older people with disabilities, which account for half of the elderly, are more likely to live in poor housing conditions. Indigenous elders are usually deeply attached to their traditional cultural practices and can experience “a unique sense of loss” when these are threatened with disappearance.

Recognising their contributions. While the elderly are disadvantaged in many ways and need special care, their value is too often overlooked because of ageist stereotypes of them being “passive, incapable and withdrawn”, the report says. This leads to their neglect and exclusion from environmental planning but also from key discussions which could benefit from their knowledge.

“This cohort of the population has a lot to contribute to strengthening national and local strategies for disaster risk reduction, based on their life experience and understanding of the particular challenges that their peers might face in a crisis, such as a flood, a storm or a heatwave,” Mizutori observed.

Also highlighting the contributions of the elderly, Bachelet cited the work of indigenous elders in Latin America to preserve their cultural heritage and traditional knowledge and of grandparents in Norway who have been using litigation to advocate for stronger climate policies.

UN independent expert on the rights of older people, Claudia Mahler, who also addressed the council, warned of the lack of a global framework protecting the rights of older people. Only Africa and the Americas have some form of regional legal instrument specifically dedicated to older people.

Mahler stressed the need for a new convention on the rights of older people, a proposal that rights groups have been pushing forward in recent years and which has gained some support at UN level.