Academic journal article The Future of Children

The Science of Climate Change

Academic journal article The Future of Children

The Science of Climate Change

Article excerpt


Michael Oppenheimer and Jesse Anttila-Hughes begin with a primer on how the greenhouse effect works, how we know that Earth is rapidly getting warmer, and how we know that the recent warming is caused by human activity. They explain the sources of scientific knowledge about climate change as well as the basis for the models scientists use to predict how the climate will behave in the future. Although they acknowledge the large degree of uncertainty that surrounds predictions of what will happen decades or even centuries in the future, they also emphasize the near certainty that climate change has the potential to be extremely harmful to children.

Most children around the world will face hotter, more extreme temperatures more frequently. Higher temperatures will directly affect children's health by increasing the rates of heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and heat-related mortality. Excessive heat is also likely to affect children indirectly by disrupting agricultural systems, driving up prices, and increasing food scarcity.

Many of the worlds children may see local demand for water outstrip supply, as shifting precipitation patterns dry out some regions of the world, make other regions wetter, and increase the frequency of both unusually dry periods and unusually severe rains. Mountain glaciers will recede further, significantly reducing storage of winter snows and thus springtime runoff, which has traditionally been used to water fields and recharge reservoirs. Melting ice will also raise sea levels, triggering direct physical threats to children through flooding and erosion and indirect threats through migration and expensive adaptation.

Climate change is also expected to make weather-based disasters more frequent and more damaging. This is particularly worrisome for children, not only because of the physical peril disasters pose but also because disasters can have debilitating long-term indirect effects on children. Damage to ecosystems from climate change may also harm children; for example, acidification the worlds oceans will reduce food supplies, and disease-carrying insects will invade new areas in response to changing rains and temperatures.

In the face of such dire forecasts, Oppenheimer and Anttila-Hughes argue, climate change forces us to directly confront the value we put on future children's wellbeing. Fortunately, we have reason for hope as well as for concern: "History," they write, "has demonstrated time and again that humans can tackle uncertain threats in times of need."

Understanding how humanity's accumulated greenhouse gas emissions will alter Earth's climate over the next few centuries requires a broad perspective, so climate change is usually discussed as a global issue. But understanding how climate change will affect children who live through it requires a narrower focus--one that pushes directly against the limitations of that global view. Geographic variation in climate change's effects over time, uncertainty stemming from scientific complexity, and, more than anything, the inherent impossibility of forecasting future human behavior combine to make climate change's eventual impacts on children both very different from place to place and extraordinarily difficult to predict with any certainty. Climate change will influence children's lives in few "global" ways. Rather, during the coming decades, children will face myriad interactions between changes in the climate and social, economic, and cultural forces.

A defining theme of this article is the need to balance high uncertainty in some areas with relative certainty in others. As we will show, we now have overwhelming evidence that human emission of greenhouse gases has already begun to change the climate and that it will continue to do so unless emissions are halted; hence we call this climate change anthropogenic, from the Greek for human influenced. Moreover, ample evidence indicates that we can expect many changes in the weather and the climate that will fall outside the range of human experience. …

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