As we enter a new decade, headlines from across the world make all too clear that the effects of climate change are not just looming. They’re here, they’re now, and they’re devastating communities on every continent. For example, in Australia, unprecedented fires have emitted roughly 400 million tons of carbon, killed at least 25 people, and destroyed 2,000 homes. In Indonesia, terrible flooding has killed at least 67 people and caused 400,000 to abandon their homes. The loss of sea ice in the Arctic is shrinking access to food resources that numerous indigenous communities have depended on for generations.
But the health effects of climate change go beyond even the most immediate and obvious consequences of fires, floods, and melting ice. In November 2019, the medical journal The Lancet published a detailed report examining the effects that climate change will have on human health under two scenarios: one in which the world reins in emissions according to commitments laid out in the Paris agreement, and one in which the world does not. In both cases, children will be most vulnerable to the numerous health harms resulting from decisions made by their parents and grandparents. Children are particularly likely to suffer the effects of climate change for numerous reasons: Their immune and organ systems are still developing, they drink relatively more water and breathe in more air than do adults relative to their body weight, and they tend to spend more time outdoors. Understanding the full scope of the public health consequences of a changing climate, then, involves examining how the risks will affect the bodies of the youngest people.
According to the Lancet report, air pollution—specifically, exposure to fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5—represents the largest environmental risk factor for premature deaths across the globe. When people think of the public health effects of air pollution, they often imagine the worst-case scenarios. For example, the smoke from the fires in Australia is currently so severe that a day spent inhaling the air in east Sydney represents the equivalent of smoking 19 cigarettes.
But air pollution need not reach such extreme levels to cause serious harm. Far more commonly, people are unaware of the daily pollution that they are breathing in due to the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and gas. In fact, more than 90 percent of children are exposed to concentrations of PM 2.5 higher than the World Health Organization’s guidelines on outdoor air pollution. Over a lifetime, unhealthy air damages lungs and increases risks for a host of diseases, from asthma to pneumonia. And due to their small body size and the factors cited above, children absorb more of this pollution than do adults.
Similarly, The Lancet report notes that children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of heat. Specifically, young children are at greater risk for experiencing electrolyte imbalance, fever, respiratory disease, and kidney disease during periods of extreme heat. Rates of heat-related deaths are four times higher among children younger than one year old as compared to people aged 1-to-44. Changing temperature and precipitation patterns are also influencing the transmission of disease from insects to humans. In particular, malaria and dengue are spread by mosquitoes, and climate suitability for transmission of these diseases is increasing in numerous parts of the world. Because children tend to spend more time outdoors, they are more likely to contract these diseases. In 2017, children accounted for 61 percent of all malaria deaths worldwide, and climate change is putting more children at even greater risk.
Changing climate patterns, droughts, and fires also threaten to reduce crop yields and increase food insecurity. Moreover, rising carbon dioxide appears to diminish the nutrient quality of crucial staple foods such as wheat and rice. Combined, these trends are likely to exacerbate the already serious global health problem of malnutrition, which currently accounts for nearly one-fifth of premature deaths and poor health globally. The consequences of malnutrition are particularly severe among children. In 2018, 22 percent of children under five years of age were stunted, meaning they experienced impaired growth and development. Stunting is largely irreversible and includes serious consequences, from poorer cognition to increased risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases later in life.
Finally, The Lancet report observes that climate change has other health implications that are more challenging to quantify but crucial to address, such as mental health effects. Researchers have found that children are at high risk of mental health problems following the types of natural disasters that are likely to increase due to climate change. For example, one study found that 31 percent of a group of children who were evacuated during Hurricane Katrina reported clinically significant symptoms associated with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control, children are at particular risk for stress after a disaster because they often understand less about what is occurring, feel less able to control events, and have less experience coping with difficult situations.
Protecting children from air pollution, heat-related deaths, infectious diseases, malnutrition, and mental health effects associated with climate change will involve the mobilization of all sectors of society to drastically reduce emissions and invest in health systems and infrastructure. The Lancet report notes a few promising signs, such as increased public and political engagement, and increasing health adaptation spending to improve communities’ resilience to a changing climate. Unfortunately, however, current efforts are falling far short of what is needed to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions on the scale needed to address the threat posed to human health. According to a 2019 United Nations report, greenhouse gas emissions must begin falling by 7.6 percent this year in order to meet the most ambitious goals laid out in the 2015 Paris climate accord. But the world is nowhere near this goal, and many countries are heading in the opposite direction. Notably, in 2018, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 2.7 percent in the United States. The United Nations has warned that every year of delay “brings a need for faster cuts, which become increasingly expensive, unlikely, and impractical.”
Waiting until action becomes more difficult, or perhaps even impossible, has appalling moral consequences. The longer we fail to act to address the risks of climate change, the more human lives we place on the line. And the majority of those lives will belong to the most vulnerable among us. It is no wonder, then, that children across the world have taken the lead in advocating for urgent, necessary action. The public health stakes for them—and for all people—grow higher with each passing year. Our health is fundamentally tied to our planet’s health. We must all consider, then, what actions we need to take to protect our planet—and thereby our communities, our children, and our selves.