Climate change has begun to change our planet in unprecedented ways. We have already been witnessing increasingly frequent and severe floods, droughts and changes in precipitation as well as heat and water stresses. These phenomena are having, and will continue to have, a devastating impact on living conditions in many parts of the world. In every crisis, children are the most vulnerable. Climate change is no exception.
Today, over half a billion children live in extremely high flood-occurrence zones; nearly 160 million live in high or extremely high drought-severity zones. Severe weather events can destroy or disrupt infrastructure critical to children's well-being, including schools, health facilities and transport. While climate change will ultimately impact every child, these children are already in harm's way and face some of the most immediate risks.
This timely Unicef publication titled The Impact of Climate Change on Children aims to build the evidence base on children and climate change by focusing on the major climate-related risks; children's current and future exposure to these risks; and the policies required to protect children from them. The report is divided into three main sections.
The first section explores the major climate-related risks and their potential impacts on children - how climate change might influence the burden of disease for children - and examines the cumulative impact of repetitive crises on children and families. The dangers of climate change are more pronounced for children than for adults. Children are more vulnerable to vector-borne diseases than adults. They face greater dangers from under-nutrition and diarrhoeal diseases.
The physical dangers of extreme weather events - flooding, building collapse, and more - pose unique threats to young children's bodies and minds. If, as expected, climate change worsens each of these risks, it is children who will suffer the most. Children will also feel these effects longer than adults, making them vital to today's decisions about climate change responses.
The second section of the publication examines how children may be affected under various scenarios of action in addressing climate change. Some of the most dense child population areas in the world are likely to suffer significantly from flooding, drought and water and heat stresses.
These include parts of South Asia, particularly coastal South Asia and south of the Himalayas; the Mekong Delta; the Nile river basin; the Pacific Islands and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) across the world; Equatorial Africa; and the Pacific coast of Latin America.
Climate change will make existing inequities even worse in these areas. It will not affect all equally. Because of the risks associated with them, flood and drought zones often overlap with areas of high poverty and low access to essential services such as water and sanitation.
This means that children and families who are already disadvantaged by poverty - those with the fewest resources for coping - are likely to face some of the most immediate dangers of climate change. This can create a vicious cycle: a child living in poverty or deprived of adequate water and sanitation before a crisis will be more affected by a flood, drought or storm, less likely to recover quickly and at even greater risk in a subsequent crisis.
The final section of this well-documented report outlines a series of broad policy recommendations to prevent further global warming, decrease children's exposure and increase their resilience to climate change and environmental risks.
This section suggests a few concrete steps that the world can take now to safeguard our children's future and their rights:
1) Cutting greenhouse gas emissions so that the average rise in the global temperature is limited to a maximum of 2º Celsius, and ideally to 1.5ºC. 2) Prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable in climate change adaptation efforts, particularly children - who will bear the brunt of climate change far longer than adults. 3) Reducing inequities among children now to promote their future resilience to climate change and other disasters or crises. 4) Listening to and acting on children's perspectives on climate change. 5) Providing children and youths with climate change education, awareness raising and training. If climate change education is built into the curriculum of primary and secondary schools, and becomes part of higher, alternative and vocational education, children and young people will develop an early understanding and appreciation of all aspects of environmental sustainability including climate change adaptation and mitigation. 6) Aligning and coordinating work on climate change adaptation, preparedness and disaster risk reduction at national and sub-national levels. 7) Protecting children and their families who are forced to move as a result of climate change. 8) Investing in children as part of national climate plans on mitigation and adaptation. 9) Scaling up proven approaches to address the changing needs of children. 10) The government need for taking bold and ambitious decisions to reach an agreement which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and enables the protection of future generations from the impacts of climate change. But others must also do their part, including businesses and civil society.
All children deserve to live in a world free from the life-threatening effects of climate change. We should not forget that saving the planet and protecting our children go hand in hand - and both can be achieved if we all act now.
The writer is an independent researcher.