The climate-changed child

A children's climate risk index supplement

A child bikes through a low riverbed with trash.
UNICEF/UN0476403/Pancic

Highlights

The lives of millions of children around the world are being upended by the climate crisis. Geography does not protect against climate change; it is affecting children everywhere – even in in high-income countries – and the world is not doing nearly enough to protect them.

In Europe, Canada and the United States, children with asthma and other respiratory conditions have suffered even worse breathing problems caused by inhaling the particles produced by wildfire smoke into their young lungs, placing them at risk of long-term damage. The ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa and desertification across the wider Sahel region along with growing water scarcity in the Middle East will have far-reaching consequences for children.

Climate-exacerbated weather events have increased six-fold in East Asia and the Pacific region over the past 50 years. In Africa, 39 out of 49 countries with available data have an overall CCRI score in the ‘extremely high’ or ‘high’ risk class. Summer temperatures are predicted to rise by up to 4°C by 2071–2100 compared to pre-industrial temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa.

Some 4.2 billion children are expected to be born over the next 30 years. There will be no ‘new normal’ climate for them. Around the world, extremes of drought, heat and flooding are becoming more common and are set to become more severe, with some regions already experiencing swings between the three and infrastructure and services are struggling to cope.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They are disproportionately affected by the impacts of disasters, environmental degradation and the climate crisis compared to adults through pollution, deadly diseases and extreme weather events. For example:

  • Killer childhood diseases are spreading more because of environmental degradation and climate change.
  • Children are more likely to suffer from air pollution than adults.
  • Infants and young children are less able to regulate their body temperature and more prone to dehydration, making them more vulnerable during extreme heatwaves.
  • Child malnutrition is worsened by crop failures and rising food prices, which is exacerbated by higher temperatures and increased rainfall linked to climate change.
  • Forty million children are having their education disrupted every year because of disasters exacerbated by climate change, and this number continues to increase.
  • Extreme heat is associated with an increase in mental health problems including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in children and adolescents.

 

Children who live in low-income countries are at particularly high risk of harm caused by climate change. In 2021, over three-quarters of United Nations humanitarian appeals arose at least in part from an extreme weather event – rising from 36 per cent in 2000.

Funding needs for UN humanitarian appeals tied to extreme weather events have risen sharply since 2000. Hazards such as droughts and floods that are exacerbated by climate change pose immediate risks to children’s lives and health, but they also lead to scarcity of resources – which can cause conflicts – and result in children being displaced from their homes and having their education disrupted.

Children have been ignored. Despite their unique vulnerability, children have been either ignored or largely disregarded in the response to climate change. Only 2.4 per cent of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds support projects incorporating child-responsive activities.

The word ‘children’ appears only twice in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2023 Synthesis Report of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. The UN synthesis report on the technical dialogue of the first global stocktake released in September 2023 does not refer to ‘children’ at all and ‘youth’ only four times.

Children and young people are consistently making urgent calls for their voices to be heard on climate topics. As the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has pointed out, taking their rights and their views into account would lead to more ambitious and effective policies on environmental protection. And yet children have almost no formal role in climate policy and decisions, and they are rarely considered in existing climate adaptation, mitigation or finance plans and actions. According to UNICEF analysis, a mere 23 per cent of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) mentioned that the NDC process was participatory and involved young people and even less, 2 per cent, mentioned that the process involved children.

Children must be at the centre of the global response. Adapting essential services, compensation for loss and damage, disaster risk reduction, early warning and increased investment in decarbonization can make the difference between life and death, a future or disaster, for the planet’s children.

Governments have an obligation to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to protect and fulfil children’s rights.

It is our collective responsibility to put children at the centre of urgent climate action to ensure that all – including the most vulnerable – have a liveable future.

Author(s)
UNICEF
Publication date
Languages
English

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