Academic journal article The Future of Children

Children and Climate Change: Introducing the Issue

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Children and Climate Change: Introducing the Issue

Article excerpt

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2015--with an average global temperature 1.6[degrees] Fahrenheit warmer than the twentieth-century average--was Earth's warmest year since record keeping began in 1880, continuing a half-century-long trend of rising temperatures. The debate about climate change and appropriate policy response is often framed in terms of the likely impact on our children. Children born in 2016 will be 34 in 2050 and 84 in 2100. How will the probable rise in temperature (3.6 to 7.2[degrees] Fahrenheit, or 2 to 4[degrees] Celsius), rising sea levels, and the increasing likelihood of extreme weather affect the course of their lives and the lives of their children? This issue of The Future of Children outlines the likely consequences of climate change on child health and wellbeing and identifies policies that could mitigate negative impacts.

Four interrelated themes emerge from the issue.

1. Climate change will fundamentally alter Earths climate system in many ways that threaten children's physical and mental wellbeing.

2. Today's children and future generations will bear a disproportionate share of the burden of climate change, which will affect child wellbeing through many direct, indirect, and societal pathways.

3. Children in developing countries and countries with weak institutions face the greatest risks.

4. The uncertainties associated with climate change and its mitigation--coupled with the fact that the costs of climate change mitigation policies need to be paid now, but the benefits will accrue in the future--make it difficult to enact appropriate policies.

In the past decade, the science of climate change has progressed rapidly. By combining evidence from direct observation, climate modeling, and historical sources (such as ice cores that can reveal information about climate centuries ago), scientists have become virtually certain that human activities are altering our climate in ways that will have drastic effects for future generations through mechanisms such as sea-level rise, warmer temperatures, and a higher frequency of natural disasters.

Children are largely left out of discussions about appropriate responses to climate change, but they ought to be central to these debates because they--as well as future generations--have a much larger stake in the outcome than we do.

Compared with adults, children are physically more vulnerable to the direct effects of extreme heat, drought, and natural disasters. Climate change's indirect effects can also derail children's developmental trajectories--for example, through conflict, vector-borne diseases, economic dislocation, undernutrition, or migration--making it harder for them to reach their full potential. As some of the most vulnerable members of society, children generally suffer whenever there is social upheaval. Given the profound changes to society that may accompany climate change, it is likely that children will be especially severely affected.

Our third theme is that children are especially vulnerable in developing countries, where 85 percent of the worlds youth currently live. Children in those countries are already facing the impacts of climate change. The World Health Organization estimates that children suffer more than 80 percent of the illness and mortality attributable to climate change. So, for a large share of the world's population, climate change is here and now and not merely some future problem. Moreover, to the extent that children in developing countries are already more likely to face other threats to their health and welfare, they may have less resilience to confront the additional problems caused by climate change.

At the same time, given that so many factors contribute to children's development, there may be many ways to either exacerbate or compensate for the harm caused by climate change. Governments bear major responsibility for adopting policies that respond to climate change. …

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