A study conducted by researchers at University College London has found that population growth in coastal areas can lead to major increases in exposure to extreme weather events.
Professor Georgina Mace, who led the study, said governments around the world had failed to grasp the risk that rapidly growing populations in coastal cities face the prospect of rising sea levels and more frequent and severe extreme weather events related to climate change.
Professor Mace told The Guardian that heat waves posed the biggest direct climate threat to elderly people in particular. She said the number of people dying from extreme heat could increase twelvefold by the end of this century as a result of global warming combined with increasing numbers living in affected areas.
She said growing numbers of people are living in vulnerable locations and this was particularly evident in China. “The demographic shift in China is enormous and involves a lot of old people who are vulnerable to extreme weather,” she said.
Official Chinese Census data shows that Guangdong Province in southern China is the most popular immigration destination, with more than 20 million people from other provinces residing there in 2010. The data shows that the inland province of Henan had the biggest loss due to population migration, with more than 10 million people living in other regions in 2010.
Statistics in Shanghai indicate the city had more than 24 million residents in 2014, with about 10 million having migrated from other provinces. A report prepared by the municipal government showed 28.8% of Shanghai residents are aged over 60.
The Chinese national health and family planning commission released a report in July which projected that by 2030 China will have 230 million rural residents who have migrated to urban areas.
At the launch of the University College report, which was commissioned by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Professor Mace said increased urbanisation will exacerbate the effects of climate change, particularly among elderly citizens.
David King, the UK foreign secretary’s special representative for climate change, said the reason the study had focused on China was the population factor. “The eastern coastal region is highly populated and the sea level is rising. That could be a big challenge,” he said.
Professor Mace and her research group recommended that big engineering projects, including sea walls to prevent flooding or wells in areas prone to drought, should be combined with natural ecosystem-based approaches such as re-establishing flood plains, planting vegetation and protecting coastlines with mangrove forests.
“It is about getting the infrastructure right,” she said. “Advance planning is needed to make coastal cities more hazard-proof. Increased mortality from heat waves in Russia and France occurred because people were living in houses that were poorly designed.”