It is with good reason that thousands of children and youth take to the streets to demand that governments urgently step up efforts to fight climate change. Massive climate strikes around the world as part of the Fridays for Future movement demonstrate that they are well aware that climate change is a looming shadow over their future. So what will their future in a changing climate look like and how are children already affected by climate change?
The recently published Lancet report confirms that children around the world will be profoundly affected by climate change. Already today, children are suffering from the effects of climate change and carry a disproportionate burden compared with adults.
Considering the climate impacts that children will face as they grow up, and how their lives will be affected, it is not astonishing that they have decided to stand up for their rights and their futures. Desperation has driven children as far as taking countries to court to fight for their future and the future of the planet.
The making or breaking of the 1.5°C limit in the Paris Agreement will define the lives of today’s children and of future generations. The peak scientific authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states with high confidence that if governments fail to drastically ramp up climate action in the next decade, warming will exceed that limit sometime between 2030 and 2050. Decisions on 2030 emission reduction targets are being made now and locked in by 2020.
Yet, according to the Climate Action Tracker, the inadequate emission reductions under current policies will lead to a global temperature increase of more than 3°C by 2100.
Almost all of the 2.5 billion children living today will live to see a 1.5°C warmer world, more than 90% of today’s 16-year-olds would live to see a 2°C warm world; 4% will live to see what a 3°C warmer world looks like. Even though today’s children have a higher life expectancy, better education and health than their ancestors, the impacts that await them may outweigh these achievements.
Rising seas, increasingly frequent and intense extreme events such as tropical storms, extreme precipitation, droughts and floods, decreasing crop yields, which threaten food security, water stress and increasing health issues are only some of the impacts children will have to live with.
If adaptation measures fail, consequences may include displacement, increasing poverty and hunger, loss of cultural heritage and increasing conflict. Children will be impacted differently, depending on where they live and their socio-economic situation. Nonetheless, they will all feel some impacts of climate change. The following examples offer a taste of what children already face today and what their future could look like.
The recent humanitarian crisis in Mozambique following Cyclone Idai affected more than 1.5 million people of which about 50% were children. Those that survived may have lost their loved ones. Homes, schools and hospitals were lost, forcing children not only to live in temporary shelter, but also endangering their health care and education.
A recent study shows that natural disasters weaken education. Not only does school education get interrupted due to destroyed buildings, but due to the destruction of livelihoods of particularly rural families, school fees may be too high for the family to afford or children need to work to contribute to the survival of the family.
Water and vector-borne diseases spread easily after natural disasters. Water-borne diseases rank among the top five causes of death for children under the age of five. The burden of vector-borne diseases as a result of climate change is carried to 88% by children under five.
Category 5 hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019 causing deaths and destruction. As global temperatures rise, hurricanes are projected to increase in intensity and decreasing in speed. The combination can bring more destruction, which was the case for hurricane Dorian, one of the slowest-moving hurricanes ever recorded. Tropical cyclones paired with sea level rise will increase the damage done to the Caribbean and North America’s coastal population causing deaths, decreasing the GDP and increasing health risks for the population.
Sea level rise
For children growing up in the Marshall Islands, climate change is already a reality today. Global sea level rise of 20cm increases erosion and flooding. Within one generation the islands could become uninhabitable forcing the 50,000 inhabitants to move leaving behind the territory that they owned, the nature that they knew and the cultural heritage that tie them together as a nation.
The nation of Kiribati, another small island state in the Pacific, has taken the most drastic measures so far and has purchased land on Fiji to eventually migrate the full nation to higher grounds.
The 19 million children living in Bangladesh will need to deal with regular flooding due to sea level rise with alongside salt water intrusion, extreme precipitation events and increasing intensity of cyclones. These events will limit the freshwater availability, which again will bring more health impacts, especially for small children and infants.
Increasing heat waves already affect the health of workers, particularly in the agricultural sector, which makes up more than 40% of the global workforce. According to the Lancet report, 45 billion additional potential work hours were lost in 2018 compared with 2000. Increasing temperatures will endanger the lives of those depending on outdoor work in hot climates, but also threaten food security and decrease the GDP.
Heat waves, such as those in 2003, 2018 or 2019 in Europe, put not only the elderly but also small children and infants at risk, as their bodies are not able to regulate their body temperature as that of an adult. While the 2003 heat wave in central Europe would have been a one in 100 years event without climate change, at current warming levels a similar event can be expected once every four years.
At 1.5°C warming, the likelihood increases to four out of ten summers and for 2°C warming, six out of ten. Record high temperatures and long periods of drought have caused severe wild fires in all parts of Europe over the past 10 years, destroying valuable forest and causing the death of adults and children, and increasing air pollution, which in turn leads to increasing asthma.
For generations parents have tried to leave behind a better world for their children. They fought for social rights, access to schooling, free education for all, women’s rights, environmental protection and many other aspects that would improve future generation’s lives. Now it is time that older generation act to limit global warming to 1.5°C compatible with the Paris Agreement and therefore allowing children the future they deserve.