Centre for Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive, and Child Health

Climate change: looking beyond the environmental impact (part 2)

By Victoria Ponce, MARCH centre blog volunteer (MSc Public Health candidate)

This year’s climate change discussion and polemic have been accentuated by events such as the carbon dioxide peak in May, Portugal’s deadly wildfires and the hottest June day in England and Wales in more than 40 years. These events, and many others occurring around the world, show that, more than ever, it is urgent to discuss the impact of global warming on health and how it affects vulnerable groups.

This piece is the second of a three-part series on climate change and the health of women, children and adolescents. Here, we explore how climate change can impact the health and lives of children, one of the groups most affected by climate change.

Children’s health and climate change

According to UNICEF, children are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and are more likely to experience health problems or displacement as result of heat waves, droughts and floods.    

Because of their growth and development, children breathe more air than adults, need to eat and drink more than adults and have different behaviours and exposures than adults, but all the while are dependent on adults for their survival and have little to no control over their own environment.

These factors make children particularly susceptible to environmental exposures that are likely to increase in intensity under climate change, such as air pollution, temperature changes, disease vectors, and food and water supply. Because of their age, children also have the longest anticipated exposure to changes in the climate and environment and, consequently, are more vulnerable to long term health consequences of climate change.

But climate change does not affect all children equally; rather it intersects with existing vulnerabilities. This means that children who are already faced with poverty are the ones who will suffer the most immediate and devastating impacts of events like floods and droughts. The consequences of these events are exacerbated by the lack of resources or inability to cope, leaving children with a triple burden of risk, exposure and vulnerability.

A child, and by proxy their family, living in a high-income setting is more likely to have appropriate resources on hand to be able to cope with climate change than a child from a low-income setting. In this way, climate change may widen already deep inequalities in children’s health across the world.

Key health threats

Climate change is likely to affect and exacerbate some of the world’s leading causes of childhood mortality and morbidity. For example, changes in global temperature and precipitation patterns are expected to produce shifts in infectious disease patterns and geographical distribution of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and meningococcal meningitis and children are likely to carry the burden of these changes.

Droughts and floods continuously contribute to a lack of clean water supplies as well as a decrease in food availability. These conditions can contribute to outbreaks of diarrhoeal disease, a leading cause of childhood mortality which is estimated to kill around 1.5 million children globally per year, and contribute to undernutrition in young children which can lead to severe developmental impacts later in life.

The increasing frequency of heatwaves in some regions is another point of concern when looking at children’s health. Due to their low capacity to adapt to changes in temperature and regulate their body temperature children are more likely to suffer from heat exhaustion, heat rash, cramps, stroke and dehydration, which can in turn lead to increased risk of hyperthermia.

Increases in temperature are also likely to exacerbate the effects of air pollution, which in turn poses a significant burden of attributable childhood mortality and morbidity. Warmer temperatures contribute to increases in ground-level ozone, which is associated with childhood asthma, as well as playing a role in increasing levels of ambient dust and pollen from forest fires, droughts, and changes in vegetation. Both indoor and outdoor air pollution have been linked to severe health outcomes for children, including low birth weight, acute lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, and higher risk of chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Also, disturbingly, climate change is increasingly adding figures to the global number of children forced out of their homes and into precarious situations. Climate change-related migration or displacement often expose these children to psychological and emotional trauma, disrupted education and healthcare, and increases the chance of separation from their family. In addition, they might be affected by the health status of their parents or guardians and subjected to lack of food, water and security.

Children in the climate change agenda

Children and their health have not traditionally been a central focus of climate change policy. For example, while the Paris Climate Agreement (2015) set an optimistic tone for climate change policy in general, children and intergenerational equity are mentioned only briefly and children’s health is absent in the document. Children’s specific vulnerability to climate change is likewise not explicit within the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

Potentially most damaging to the integration of children’s rights into climate change policy is the USA’s President Trump’s recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Although this prompted a wave of condemnation from world leaders, a lack of US backing in the already uphill fight against climate change could have severe consequences globally, not least in countries most susceptible to the most immediate effects of climate change and where the majority of the world’s most vulnerable children reside.

On the bright side, organisations such as the UN, Plan International and Save the Children have been pushing for consideration of children’s health within climate change policy. In 2007, the Children in a Changing Climate (CCC) Coalition was established as a partnership of Save the Children, UNICEF, World Vision International, Plan International and the ChildFund Alliance. The CCC Coalition advocates and promotes the integration of children’s rights into climate change policy and practices.

More recently, in 2015, UNICEF outlined a ten-step agenda for the centralisation of children into the climate change policy arena, emphasising the risks to children’s health from climate change and the potential for children to contribute to and gain from better climate change policy.

Similarly, the WHO’s Global Plan of Action for Children’s Health and the Environment advocates for the inclusion of children’s health in climate change research agendas and policy movements. Grassroots movements, such as the 3rd International Climate Change Conference for Children, organised in 2016 in Uganda, shine a positive light on the potential for inclusion of children within climate change policy and practice. 

Children’s dependence on their wider environment makes them especially vulnerable to climate change-related health risks and in so many contexts related to climate change, they cannot speak or act for themselves. However, there does seem to be a rising effort from some organisations to empower and involve children in the climate change discussion.  

By making children central to climate change policy and by strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable children, extensive damage to children’s health could be avoided and future generations could be equipped with the tools and knowledge necessary to mitigate and adapt further.

Image Copyright: http://www.savethechildren.org.au/our-work/program-selector/climate-change-adaptation – Children learning about climate change in Vanuatu

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