A climate fight without age: older people and COP26

The whole world – at least metaphorically speaking if not physically – seems to be descending on Glasgow as COP26 is due to start this coming week. This is an astonishingly critical moment for humanity and our future. Every media outlet and commentator have been and will be focussing on the events happening by the Clyde.

Over the last few weeks, I have attended several events where issues of climate change and our environmental responsibilities have been discussed. My Scottish Care colleagues together with friends in the Health and Social Care Alliance have over the last few weeks held a fascinating series of webinars on Climate Change and how these issues impact on and are affected by the social care sector in Scotland. I warmly commend the Hot Reports and summaries of what have been fascinating discussions and debates. Also look out for a full report which is due soon.

Today however, I want to consider an element of the environmental struggle and debate, and media coverage which has increasingly made me feel uncomfortable. I have continually heard, not least in the media, phrases like ‘young people are leading the way’, ‘this is a young people’s issue’ ‘we have to save the planet for the young.’ Now do not get me wrong I agree with each of these but there is present in some debate and coverage what I can only call a ‘generational divide’ –if not a blatant ageism. There is an undercurrent of commentary that suggests it is the old who are responsible for the state we are in. This is in danger of being a naïve re-writing of history which whilst based on a chronological reality risks the failure to engage, mobilise and empower an older generation who are critical in the global climate challenge. It also risks making the error of all prejudice which is to create a homogenous group out of the many.

Building generational divides is both unhelpful and unwarranted. The global ecological crisis which we are all collectively experiencing and going to have to face up to is one that recognises no generational priority – it is something which affects us all. The challenges to be faced by COP26 will be met not solely by political leadership but by ordinary people. In Scotland part of that reality is that most of the disposable income and wealth in our nation is in the hands of an older generation. If we are to see the change we require then we have to act in solidarity in facing the challenge and to do so we need to bring all ages with us.

In fact, both nationally and globally it is likely to be the case that climate changes disproportionately affects older persons. So, if there was anyone committed to the challenge then it should be our older citizens.

For instance, it is well recognised that climate change threatens human health, including mental health, access to clean air and water, nutritious food, and shelter. Sadly, it is often older people who are most immediately affected whether it be from loss of life in the devastating floods which we witnessed in central Europe this summer or the drought facing much of sub-Saharan Africa. Everyone is affected by climate change at some point in their lives. But the impacts on those who are already impoverished by lack of healthcare, access to opportunity and poverty are even greater and are often exacerbated by older age.

As we age, we are more vulnerable to the impacts of the climate around us. As has been stated:

“One reason is that normal changes in the body associated with aging, such as muscle and bone loss, can limit mobility. Older adults are also more likely to have a chronic health condition, such as diabetes, that requires medications for treatment. Some older adults, especially those with disabilities, may also need assistance with daily activities. “

Older adults, especially those with chronic health and coronary conditions, are affected by extreme heat and we have already seen a global increase in loss of life because of heatwaves and intense heat. Unexpected weather incidents such as flash-flooding affect us all but the ability to respond to rapid emergencies is lessened when you get older and older adults are more likely to be affected by loss of life in catastrophic events such as storms and floods. Older people are also more likely to be affected by the negative impact that climate change has on air quality especially in areas of built-up environments. All in all, there are significant health impacts on our older population both now and potentially in the future.

Unless we engage and convince our older citizens of the criticality of climate change then the effort will be doomed to failure. And indeed, we should not presume that this is a population not already active and engaged. There are a good number of organisations of older people both in Scotland and internationally who are at the heart of their communities’ responses to the urgency of these issues. Let us not fall foul of casual ageism and improper impugning of culpability. We must do more to harness the voice and energy of older age on climate change.

The saving of the planet calls for collective action and the insights, experience, creativity and ingenuity; the passion and intellect brought by older age has much to add to that struggle. Wouldn’t it be great if the much-desired Older Person’s Commissioner for Scotland had as a core responsibility of their role the resourcing and encouraging of our older population to become environmental champions? Why therefore do we not have a Climate Commissioner or Green Commissioner? – the EU has one as do some cities – Scotland at the very least could do that by creating an independent office able to hold government and civic society, business and commerce accountable for all our environmental response regardless of age.

Before her amazing Inauguration poem, the poet Amanda Gorman had already written about a whole range of issues not least of which was her environmental concerns.  As we ponder upon and hope for real, meaningful political action coming out of COP26, I leave you with some extracts from her amazing poem ‘Earthrise’ which she wrote in August 2018, and which was dedicated to Al Gore and The Climate Reality Project.  Please read the full poem at https://naaee.org/eepro/blog/earthrise-poem-amanda-gorman

‘On Christmas Eve, 1968, astronaut Bill Anders
Snapped a photo of the earth
As Apollo 8 orbited the moon.
Those three guys
Were surprised
To see from their eyes
Our planet looked like an earthrise
A blue orb hovering over the moon’s gray horizon,
with deep oceans and silver skies.

It was our world’s first glance at itself
Our first chance to see a shared reality,
A declared stance and a commonality;

A glimpse into our planet’s mirror,
And as threats drew nearer,
Our own urgency became clearer,
As we realize that we hold nothing dearer
than this floating body we all call home.

Climate change is the single greatest challenge of our time,

Of this, you’re certainly aware.
It’s saddening, but I cannot spare you
From knowing an inconvenient fact, because
It’s getting the facts straight that gets us to act and not to wait.

So I tell you this not to scare you,
But to prepare you, to dare you
To dream a different reality,

Where despite disparities
We all care to protect this world,
This riddled blue marble, this little true marvel
To muster the verve and the nerve
To see how we can serve
Our planet. You don’t need to be a politician
To make it your mission to conserve, to protect,
To preserve that one and only home
That is ours,
To use your unique power
To give next generations the planet they deserve.


To see it, close your eyes.
Visualize that all of us leaders in this room
and outside of these walls or in the halls, all
of us changemakers are in a spacecraft,
Floating like a silver raft
in space, and we see the face of our planet anew.
We relish the view;
We witness its round green and brilliant blue,
Which inspires us to ask deeply, wholly:
What can we do?
Open your eyes.
Know that the future of
this wise planet
Lies right in sight:
Right in all of us. Trust
this earth uprising.
All of us bring light to exciting solutions never tried before
For it is our hope that implores us, at our uncompromising core,
To keep rising up for an earth more than worth fighting for.’


Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 30th November 2021 by Shanice