Four seasons in one day: a reflection on ageing and climate.

There is something of a delicious Scottish irony that after weeks of continual sunshine and at the end of a week in which an official heatwave was recorded for many parts of Scotland that I am sitting writing this blog watching the puddles outside after a night of rain on a day when lots of local community outside events are due to take place! The irony is not in the ability of the Scottish weather to potentially announce the end of summer before June is over but in the fact that today is a day which the United Nations annually designates as the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

As the UN states

“Droughts are among the greatest threats to sustainable development, especially in developing countries, but increasingly so in developed nations too. In fact, forecasts estimate that by 2050 droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population.

The number and duration of droughts has increased by 29 percent since 2000, as compared to the two previous decades (WMO 2021). When more than 2.3 billion people already face water stress, this is a huge problem.”

The theme for this 2023 is Her Land, Her Rights and is a recognition of the reality that women the world over ‘hold a vital stake in the health of the land, yet they often don’t have control over it’…. And that ‘investing in women’s equal access to land and associated assets is a direct investment in their future and the future of humanity. It’s time for women and girls to be at the forefront of global land restoration and drought resilience efforts.’

The truth of climate change is an ever-present reality right across the world and Scotland is evidencing that painful reality all too frequently. Wild-fires and water shortage, droughts and ruined crops are all indicative of dramatic changes to our environment and are individually and collectively clarion calls for urgent action on climate and sustainable resources.

Whilst the UN focus is quite rightly on women and the significant role, they could play in both land use and in challenging drought and desertification, I am very mindful these last few weeks of the dramatic impacts our changing patterns of weather are having on older Scots.

From a young age I’ve always been fascinated by the weather. It was probably inevitable that I’d become a weather obsessive because it feels like it’s in the blood perhaps because of a long ancestry of farming and island life. In fact, there was a long-standing family joke that my mother’s first words in any conversation in response to the usual ‘How are you?’ was for her to tell you what the weather was like. Maybe it’s the unpredictability of the weather in Scotland that has always held my interest and indeed I’ve blogged about the truth behind the reality not least in Skye of how you can and often do get four seasons in one day as the words of Crowded House’s hit made famous.

But there is increasingly a new dimension to the unpredictability of weather which should cause us more than inconvenience it should convince us to be concerned enough to take action.

The dramatic changes in our weather seem to be happening far sooner than many of us might have predicted and their effects are already significant.

I’ve had numerous conversations with care staff and older folks in the last few weeks of intense heat and sunshine about how hard it is to be old and to live with health and care needs in periods of intense weather.

Indeed, there is an increased awareness that high temperatures and heat can have a profound and sadly fatal impact on many people. Heat warnings from the Met Office are a new phenomenon but we are now witnessing them on our weather forecasts much more often.

Extremes of weather demand our attention in numerous ways. One is to address at national and local level the requirement to change the way we treat the environment to avoid the worst excesses of poor land management that can lead to flood or indeed drought and water shortage. This last week there has also been parliamentary and political debate about who we transition to a low carbon and Net Zero economy not least in energy use and house construction.

At a more personal and local level I do think as a whole society we need to focus on how we keep ourselves healthy in the likely instances of more extreme weather. That in part includes all of us being aware of practical steps as detailed by the Met Office and organisations like Age Scotland. Whether it is through making sure we support neighbours and relatives to be aware of the importance of drinking lots of water or avoiding being out at the hottest part of the day we need to become weather and climate resilient communities.

But there are also much wider considerations which in my view we have not even begun to prepare for. On this international day when we are aware of the impact of drought on some of our most vulnerable communities and parts of the world, I think we need to give serious consideration to a climate action plan which specifically addresses the needs of an ageing population which is our reality in Scotland.

As more and more people live longer but also live alone we need to ensure that social care and support, and wider community support is focussed to and capable of addressing specific seasonal climactic needs. That might include re-design of our built environment to improve ventilation and temperature management. It certainly needs to include equipping frontline staff with knowledge to recognise signs of dehydration or early risks of cold weather impacts. It demands our housing sector to start to construct for demographic reality rather than maximised profit. I’ve lost count of the number of planning proposals which on paper seek to build single person and accessible accommodation but which when construction ends are invisible because it is argued that they are expensive to build and margins are low.

Right across the board from planning to social care, from educating our young on climactic response to allow them to support all to live safely in our communities to investing in climate technological innovation there is a serious lack of focus on the specific climactic management needs of older persons.

I’ve probably lost faith in the hope of ever finding a truly accurate weather forecast though that’s not stopped me downloading every new app, but it doesn’t take much to forecast the reality of increasing climactic unpredictability. Our response to that could be to ostrich-like hide our heads in the sands or to begin to develop, plan and implement robust and resourced age-sensitive climate action plans. It’s quite clear to me that those most at risk are our elderly fellow citizens and it is with them that our response needs to start.

These last few days as hot weather has stretched beyond expectations, I’ve heard quite a few folk engaging in the ancient Scottish pastime of negative weather prophecy (and I include myself here!) from suggesting that this is us having had our summer to a conviction that “we will pay for it.”! But we all still have the agency to do something about preparing ourselves and our population in older age to be healthy in a world of changed climate.

I leave you with my favourite poem about our Scottish weather by Alistair Reid. Enjoy whatever weather the day brings you and yours.

‘Scotland’ by Alastair Reid

It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’

from Inside Out – Selected Poetry and Translations (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2008)

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Donald Macaskill