The kids aren’t all right, says new study on climate and health
November 18, 2019
Children will have to bear the burden of a warmer world at “every stage of their lives,” according to recent report from the medical journal The Lancet.
“A child born today will experience a world that is more than four degrees warmer than the preindustrial average, with climate change impacting human health from infancy and adolescence to adulthood and old age,” the report said.
The world is already undergoing irreversible damage due to climate change: The amount of carbon dioxide in the air — largely attributed to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions — is exacerbating extreme weather events, including drought, flooding, wildfires and hurricanes. As the world struggles to cope with the effects of climate change, future generations will be left to bear the health burden caused by their ancestors, The Lancet report warns.
“Climate change, and the air pollution from fossil fuels that are driving it, threaten a child’s health starting in their mother’s womb and it only accumulates from there,” said Renee Salas, emergency medical doctor at Harvard University and lead author of the 2019 Lancet Countdown U.S. Policy Brief.
Take vector-borne diseases like malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever — a warmer world creates more (warm, wet) homes for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Children, because of their physiology, are most at-risk to these diseases, the deadliest of which, malaria, kills more than 1.2 million people a year — most of them under the age of five, according to the World Health Organization.
Children and infants are also “worst affected by the potentially permanent effects of undernutrition,” an increasingly likely scenario as climate change threatens food production and food security.
Air pollution — which today blankets most cities — has a cumulative effect on health, harming children at every stage of life and damaging hearts, lungs and all other vital organs. In 2016 alone, air pollution killed 7 million people, said the report.
And as extreme weather events increase, children will be forced to face the devastating consequences. Unfortunately, these damages are not distributed equally, mostly affecting low-income areas and putting additional burdens on individuals and households.
“The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change,” said the report. “Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”
Many countries, however, don’t seem adequately prepared to take part in this “accelerated intervention.” Aside from some small island countries, most U.N. member states have been a lot of talk but precious little walk on climate action. The highest emitters are currently on track to miss emission targets set by the Paris Agreement, and the U.S. — the world’s second-largest emitter — recently filed paperwork to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
Recent climate strikes, however, show that young people aren’t going to idly stand by as world leaders fail to respond to the mounting threats of climate change, particularly as their futures — and their health — are at risk.
“The weight of the climate crisis has been put on our shoulders because of world leader’s inaction on the climate crisis,” said 14-year-old climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor, in a panel co-hosted by Earth Day Network and Twitter this year.
Villaseñor is a real-life example of how climate change already affects youth. On a recent trip to California, Villaseñor, who has asthma, had to cut her trip short because of the smoke from the Paradise wildfires.
“The smoke was seeping into my house,” she said. “There were all these face masks getting handed out to be protected from the smoke, but they weren’t keeping out the particles… That just shows how much the communities are unprepared for the effects of the climate crisis”
Legislation (or ideology) like the Green New Deal — taking place in the European Union and proposed by progressive Democrats in the United States — is gaining momentum, presenting a climate-resilient future grounded in smart infrastructure, renewable energy, fossil fuel divestment and a fair economy.
Other reasons for hope include the recent rise of renewable energy and electric cars, as well as the efforts of local politicians. Though federal governments may drag their feet around the world, cities are taking matters into their own hands. Roughly 50% of countries and 69% of cities surveyed were working toward national health adaptation plans or climate change risk assessments, the study reported.
The report was published by the Lancet Countdown, a multi-disciplinary collaboration that publishes annual reports that monitor the connection between public health and climate change.
The report shows two pathways for the future, as outlined in timelines presented by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations: a business-as-usual pathway; and a “well below 2 degrees Celsius” by 2100 pathway, which echoes language in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the U.N. international agreement on limiting carbon emissions.
Our actions in the next decades can curb, and even reverse, some of the worst effects of climate change. But we have to act fast. In its 2018 special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees, the IPCC gives us only until 2030 to halve greenhouse gas emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe.
“An unprecedented challenge demands an unprecedented response, and it will take the work of the 7.5 billion people currently alive to ensure that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate,” said the report.
But it doesn’t take a scientist (or a global scientific report) to understand the urgency of this crisis, or what’s most at risk.
In an interview with Earth Day Network earlier this year, indigenous climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez summed up our current state: “This is one of the most powerful moments of our generation’s history. What we do within the next five to 10 years is going to determine the next thousand years of life on Earth.”