Climate Change, Conflict, and Children

By Akresh, Richard | The Future of Children, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Climate Change, Conflict, and Children


Akresh, Richard, The Future of Children


Summary

We have good reason to predict that a warming climate will produce more conflict and violence. A growing contingent of researchers has been examining the relationship in recent years, and they've found that hotter temperatures and reduced rainfall are linked to increases in conflict at all scales, from interpersonal violence to war.

Children are especially vulnerable to conflict, Richard Akresh writes. In addition to directly exposing children to violence and trauma, conflict can tear families apart, displace whole populations, interrupt schooling, cut off access to health care or food, and eliminate the jobs that families depend on for a living. Children caught in a war zone may suffer physical injuries, malnutrition, developmental delays, and psychological damage, with effects on their physical health, mental health, and education that can persist into adulthood and constrict their ability to make a living. Moreover, those effects can spill over to the next generation and beyond, damaging the affected countries' ability to develop human capital.

The likelihood that rates of conflict will increase on a hotter planet, then, poses a serious threat to children's wellbeing--especially in poorer countries, which already see the most wars and other conflicts. Unfortunately, Akresh writes, we still poorly understand the mechanisms that link climate to conflict, and we have almost no evidence to tell us which types of policies could best mitigate the effects of climate change-related violence on children.

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This article reviews the evidence linking climate variability to conflict, broadly defined, and what happens to children after they are exposed to conflict. One challenge in examining that link is the question of how to define conflict. Wars between nations, civil conflicts, genocides, ethnic cleansing, political and neighborhood violence, localized rioting or disputes, interpersonal violence, and suicide have all been examined under the rubric of conflict research. Conflicts vary in many ways: in duration, with some lasting days and others lasting decades; in how many individuals are exposed and/or displaced; in whether deaths are concentrated among soldiers or civilians; and in their underlying causes.

Conditions children experience in the womb or early in life have been shown to be especially harmful because they not only affect health in the short term but also may influence health, education, and socioeconomic wellbeing in adulthood. (1) Children are especially vulnerable to conflict, yet different types of conflict can vary wildly in their effects, and researchers have not yet started to explore that variation in a systematic way. In addition to directly exposing children to violence and trauma, conflict may disrupt child care, family arrangements, educational or health opportunities, and adult employment. Most studies of exposure to conflict focus on how it affects health and education, although researchers are beginning to look at other outcomes, such as political beliefs and adult mental health. Recent studies have also found that exposure to conflict may have different effects depending on a child's age, and some of the evidence suggests that the effects can be particularly pronounced if exposure occurs during adolescence. The negative effects of conflict exposure can carry over to the next generation: children of parents exposed to conflict can experience health and education deficits themselves. It's worth noting that research examining how conflicts affect children is part of a broader research agenda studying how children are affected by different types of shocks, such as weather, famine, epidemics, natural disasters, and pollution. (2)

The possibility that growth disturbances in early life might affect future outcomes is particularly relevant in developing countries, where armed conflict occurs more often than in other regions of the world. …

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