Ageing, the Built Environment and Adaptation to Climate Change by Tracie Harvison, Rachelle Newman and Bruce Judd

Population ageing and climate change are two of the most pressing issues for Australia, yet there has been little attention given to the relationship between the two or the role of the built environment in ameliorating or amplifying impacts. Older people, because of a range of physiological, psychological and socio-economic dispositions, are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events. By understanding the link between climatic exposures on health and other sensitivities of the senior cohort, a range of interventions can be adopted within the built environment to reduce vulnerability and therefore increase the resilience of this group.

Through a review of international and Australian literature, this paper - funded by the University of New South Wales based Australian Climate Change Adaptation Research Network for Settlements and Infrastructure - identifies the generic sensitivities of older people to climate induced exposures and the capacity to adapt the built environment to ameliorate this cohort’s vulnerability to climate change. Secondly it examines Australia’s response to climate change and population ageing. What is revealed is that these issues have been addressed in isolation of each other, with little attention paid to compounding effect each has on the other. Current policy has failed to adequately consider the consequences of older persons being more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in comparison to younger cohorts. Given that Australian society is rapidly ageing, the implication is that the vulnerability of the community as a whole to climate change will escalate unless action is taken to build the adaptive capacity of older persons in coping with the impacts of climate-induced exposures, simply due to the increasing percentage of older persons in the population.

The key findings on this discussion paper are:

  • the range and magnitude of climatic impacts predicted to be experienced in Australia will be highly variable and unique to this continent’s geographical context, demographic trends and settlement patterns;
  • heatwaves pose the most immediate threat to public health and ageing, heat sensitive infrastructure. This is also an exposure to which older persons are particularly vulnerable;
  • while tropical cyclones, floods and bushfires have the potential to cause significant damage to property and loss of economic production, severe thunderstorms and hail presents a more significant economic threat given the wider distribution across the Australian continent and often lack of preparedness given the difficulties in predicting their occurrence and rapid formation limiting the ability to broadcast early warnings to affected communities;
  • flooding and the threat of storm surge will pose an escalating risk due to sea level rise;
  • an older person’s sensitivity and risk of injury or loss increases in proportion to their level of physical and/or cognitive impairment, level of social isolation and financial dependency;
  • given pre-existing health and level of physical and/or cognitive impairment are major determinants of sensitivity to a range of environmental exposures, supporting older persons to maintain good health and physically active is a key strategy in building resilience to and reducing vulnerability to climate change;
  • the ability for older persons to obtain assistance and conversely surveillance of older persons can improve their level of preparedness including modifying behaviour in response to a threat of an extreme weather event or environmental exposure. As such supporting older persons to remain socially engaged and active (avoiding becoming socially isolated) can significantly reduce vulnerability to climate change;
  • older cohorts are more reliant on traditional modes of communication (telephone, newspaper/print media, radio and television). While this reliance will likely change with the entry of the Baby Boomer cohort into retirement, this needs to be considered when formulating strategies for early warning and information about climatic-induced threats;
  • there is a distinct advantage in local government playing a key role in developing adaptive capacity to climate change impacts given that the risks and types of climateinduced exposures will be highly variable depending on the geographic location and settlement patterns across the nation therefore demanding local responses. This equally applies to adaptive strategies aimed at supporting the creation of age-friendly environments; land use planning and development controls, working in concert with the BCA have proven successful in increasing community resilience to climate change impacts through improving the structural performance of buildings, landscapes and other public infrastructure in the face of predicted environmental exposures (cyclones, severe storms, floods and storm surge, bushfire, heatwaves, etc);
  • adaption of existing building stock for climate change and to supporting ageing-inplace presents as a more significant issue within the Australian context rather than new development given the requirement to comply with the performance standards set by the Building Code of Australia addressing issues for extreme weather events, thermal comfort and energy efficiency as well as disability access;
  • exclusion of mainstream housing from being required to be designed for disability access and/or incorporating adaptive capacity to be readily modified to support physical and cognitive impairment contradicts desires to encourage successful ageing-in-place; and
  • creating ‘age-friendly’ environments, which promote positive ageing and encourages older persons to remain social active has the potential to deliver the added benefit of also reducing the sensitivity of older persons to the impacts of climate change and as such, the overall vulnerability of the community to climate change.

It is hoped that this paper will provide a platform from which to launch further research on this important topic and obtain primary Australian data.