New Insights: Children and climate change
Reflections on the place of children amidst the climate crisis, as UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) gets underway
Letter from our Director | 4 minute read
This year’s UN Climate Change Conference COP25 is well underway. The event takes place against increasingly dire warnings regarding the fate of the planet. Global action to date has had no effect in reducing the trend of rising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and the consequent increase in average temperatures. A recent commentary in Nature warns that the world has likely crossed a series of climate tipping points at which point the impacts of planetary warming become unstoppable.
What is the connection between this agenda and children?
There are multiple pathways through which children are, and will increasingly be, affected by climate change. Greenhouse gases pollute the air children breathe, contributing to fatal respiratory diseases, and negatively affecting children’s brain development, leading to worse educational outcomes. Increases in temperature have been connected to a range of behaviour changes including increased violence and lower productivity. Temperature changes also shape disease vectors and are expected to precipitate a higher overall incidence of major causes of child death, including malaria, dengue and cholera, disproportionately affecting children living in tropical regions. Increased temperatures will also affect the availability of food and water on which children depend. Finally, changing and volatile weather patterns will lead to disasters, displacement, and disruption of children’s lives during their formative years.
This narrative has children as its object, and portrays children as the victim. It makes a case for climate adaptation, with children at its center, who will otherwise be among the worst affected.
Compelling though this narrative is, its salience has been eclipsed over the last year as attention has switched to the ways in which climate change will be affected by children. In 2019, children have emerged as arguably the most vociferous and committed advocates for urgent action on climate change. This March saw the first of four global climate strikes, in which millions of children across multiple countries walked out of schools to participate in mass demonstrations. Those demonstrations were inspired in part by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who has emerged as the world’s most recognizable activist and spokesperson on the issue.
Number of participants in youth-led climate strikes worldwide
This narrative has children as its subject, and portrays children as the solution. It is primarily focused on climate mitigation, which children’s pressure can help bring about.
This two-way connection linking children and the climate suggests that advocacy for the two issues should be mutually beneficial. Success in either area should, in theory, precipitate success in the other.
At a more fundamental level, child and climate advocacy would appear to be natural bedfellows. Both represent a plea for people to look beyond the immediate term and to care more for the future, whether for the next generation or for the planet they will inherit. Such an outlook does not align with short electoral cycles on which politicians can be held to commitments; rather, it requires an appeal to people’s conscience.
This temporal dimension of the connection between children and climate change manifests in various ways. Young people’s climate advocacy is often expressed as frustration or anger, directed less at political leaders or big business than at older generations. Climate is seen as an issue of inequity between generations, which demands justice. The incoming Managing Director of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, appealed to this temporal aspect in a recent commentary:
"When I think of the incredible challenges we must confront in the face of a changing climate, my mind focuses on young people. Eventually, they will be the ones either to enjoy the fruits or bear the burdens resulting from actions taken today.
I think of my 9-year-old granddaughter. By the time she turns 20, she may be witness to climate change so profound that it pushes an additional 100 million people into poverty. By the time she turns 40, 140 million may become climate migrants — people forced to flee homes that are no longer safe or able to provide them with livelihoods. And if she lives to be 90, the planet may be 3–4° hotter and barely livable."
The agendas for children and climate change may be intrinsically connected, yet it is striking how advocates of these two causes are seen as distinct tribes, and their efforts are rarely combined. Moreover, it is not a given that policymakers see the two issues this way.
In a new study, my colleague Cristina led an exploration of this issue, which reviewed 183 countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — actions countries intend to take to mitigate emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. For 13 of those countries, the study went further by examining their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), which specify countries’ medium and long-term adaptation needs including relevant strategies and programmes.
Less than half, only 42 per cent, of all NDCs directly reference children or youth
The analysis shows that few governments perceive a meaningful link between children and climate. Only 42 percent of all NDCs contain a direct reference to children or youth, and in at least half of these cases, this amounts to little more than lip service. The 13 countries that have developed NAPs do better, with 11 explicitly referring to children or youth, but again the connection drawn between the two agendas is worryingly thin.
As UNICEF finds its voice on climate change, this reflects a growing recognition in our organization of the ties that bind this agenda with the wellbeing of children. We then face the much greater challenge of persuading others of this connection and supporting them in taking action.