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Why climate action is a matter of human rights for older people worldwide

On 9 April 2024, the European Court of Human Rights issued a pivotal ruling that places older persons at the heart of climate justice discussions. This perspective from SEI explores the background of the court’s decision and its implications for policymakers globally.
Credit: Joyce Romero via Unsplash

This piece was originally published as a Perspective on the SEI website.

A landmark ruling this month by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) underscores the urgent need to address the impact of climate change on older populations.  Brought by a “climate seniors association”, Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, the case highlighted Switzerland’s failure to protect older people, particularly during extreme heat events; the court ruled that  the failure to act violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

While the ruling is a significant step forward, it marks just the beginning of a necessary global response. It emphasizes both the need for sustained global efforts to protect the planet’s growing population of older people and the unique insights that can be gained from this population and the wealth of experience they bring. By acknowledging the link between global ageing and climate change, we can mobilize a more inclusive approach to safeguard future generations.

The ECHR’s recognition of older people’s rights promotes accountability and action on climate change. This is crucial, given that the global population is ageing. It is projected that individuals aged 65 and older will reach 994 million by 2030, and 1.6 billion by 2050. This unprecedented ageing occurs while climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storms and flooding. 

Older people face significant challenges in dealing with the effects of severe climate conditions because of limitations in physical, cognitive, communal and economic resources, especially in the developing world. 

Heatwaves pose a grave threat to older people, whose ability to regulate body temperature diminishes with age, further exacerbated by chronic illnesses. Heat-induced fatalities among those aged 65 and over have nearly doubled globally in the past two decades, with a significant number occurring during events like the European heatwave of 2022. Additional climate-related dangers like floods, wildfires and tropical storms have a greater impact on older individuals. These groups may face challenges related to mobility, communication access and financial means when dealing with such crises. 

While age in itself does not increase an individual’s vulnerability to climate risks, it is often accompanied by various physical, political and social factors that can impede the enjoyment of human rights. Despite their diverse backgrounds, older people face challenges in accessing rights to life, such as health, food, water, sanitation, housing, freedom of movement, livelihood, social protection and culture. Discrimination based on factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, disability and migration status further compound these challenges. 

Ageism can exacerbate the impact of climate change on the rights of older individuals, potentially leading to their neglect, exclusion or marginalization in laws and policies. Despite their wealth of knowledge and experience, older adults are often side-lined in climate action efforts because of age-related biases.

To effectively address the interconnected challenges of climate change and an ageing population, specific actions are necessary:

  1. Address the threat: a Help Age International study has highlighted the need to address the threat that climate change poses to an ageing population. This includes implementing targeted measures to protect older individuals from the heightened risks associated with environmental changes.
  2. Increase understanding and attention: there is a crucial need for a deeper understanding of the effects of global ageing on economic growth, consumption patterns, and greenhouse gas emissions. Future scientific reports, such as those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) mitigation and adaptation gap reports, should devote greater attention to the implications of global ageing on climate change.
  3. National policy recognition: at the national level, policymakers should recognize older people as a vulnerable group within National Determined Contributions (NDCs). This recognition should guide the development of climate action plans that are aimed at both reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change, ensuring that these plans are inclusive of and responsive to the needs of older populations.

While the ECHR’s ruling represents a significant step forward, there are still challenges to overcome in the fight against climate change. Mobilizing governments and societies worldwide to take meaningful action will require sustained effort and commitment. However, the ruling also presents an opportunity to leverage the contributions of older people in addressing climate change. It is essential that we continue to prioritize climate action and human rights protection, recognizing the interconnectedness of global ageing and climate change. By embracing the contributions of older people and working together to address the challenges of climate change, we can build a brighter future for all generations.

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