Climate change and children’s health

UNICEF says that climate change is posing an immense challenge to the health of children worldwide. Though children commonly have the least to do with the actions and attitudes that lead to climate change, they are the ones who will have to bear the brunt of it.

Image Credit: UNICEF/UN055819/Sokhin
Image Credit: UNICEF/UN055819/Sokhin

Present effects of climate change

Extreme climate and weather events such as heat waves, cyclones, and floods are happening more often and with markedly greater intensity. As such they pose a direct threat to human life, including the lives of children. They also destroy houses, schools, hospitals and other facilities that are essential to the wellbeing of children. These calamities also cause pollution of water supply and drainage channels, as well as sanitation systems, promoting the occurrence of diseases like cholera that, again, target children in particular.

At the same time, droughts are occurring all over the planet. Rainfall patterns are changing as well.

The result is crop failure and the outcome is inflated food costs. This causes reduced food availability for the poor as well as nutritional deficiencies which may very well last lifelong. The loss of livelihood, the need to migrate elsewhere to earn a subsistence or to cover debt repayment incurred as a result of crop losses, conflicts with earlier occupants of the new place they migrate to, and general neglect of children in addition to the inability to provide a chance for children to learn, to grow, to work and to play, in such a way as to fit them for mature adult life.

Diseases like dengue and malaria which will become more common as a result of climate change are poorly resisted by children. In fact, children under 5 will bear 90% of disease due to the changing disease pattern caused by climate change.

Air pollution and pneumonia

Air pollution and climate change share common causes. Unfortunately, air pollution is rife in areas that house over 2 billion children, with the pollutant standards exceeding those of the World Health Organization (WHO). As a result, these children breathe bad air, filled with toxins, which can impair both their brain and bodily development. The consequences are partially seen in the more than 0.5 million deaths that occur before the age of 5 because of diseases caused by pollution. Only partially seen, because many more live but with permanently impaired health as a result of brain and lung injury caused by pollution.

The leading cause of death due to infection among children under 5 is pneumonia, which claims 2,400 children a day, on average. Pneumonia deaths are rampant among children who are already endangered by poor nutrition, unsafe water supplies, and lack of hygienic sanitation facilities, exacerbated by pollution within the indoors environment and unaffordable, inaccessible or remote healthcare facilities.  Climate change only makes all these matters worse.

Increasing risk for the disadvantaged

As a result, says the report, “This is the first time a global generation of children will grow up in a world made far more dangerous and uncertain as a result of a changing climate and degraded environment.”

If children in the relatively sheltered and highly affluent West are at risk, climate change spells a death sentence to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who struggle with poverty, loss of livelihood, home and health, lack of family support and educational opportunities. And as crisis follows crisis in close succession, with the increasing change in climate, each becomes rapidly harder to tide over, leaving the children’s lives ever more vulnerable to irrecoverable losses.

At present, the world has about 660 million who have no access to water from sources where there is proper separation from human waste – called improved water sources. This figure will only go up. Already, it is projected that the demand for water will exceed the available amount for at least 600 million children alone, by 2040. The evidence is pouring in that climate change and air pollution are having a heavy impact on the health of children, but action is slow to happen.

Action needed – urgently!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says in its latest report that less than 11 years separates the world today from the changes that will usher in catastrophic climate change impacts. This is all the time we have to cut carbon emissions by 45% before 2030 dawns on a world that is warmer by over 1.5oC. in addition to preventing global climate change, today’s policymakers must urgently look at measures to soften its impact on the children of the world who will otherwise suffer an uninhabitable planet for no fault of their own.

Possible solutions

UNICEF is partnering global and local partners to help achieve a safe and sustainable non-polluting environment. By taking action to mitigate climate change, both economic and social moves can be ensured that will make Sustainable Development a reality and protect the earth for today’s children. UNICEF approaches this challenge with four steps:

Center climate change strategies around children

By making children the focus of climate change adaptation and mitigation plans, children learn how to bring about a climate disaster response plan and strategies to prevent climate change early in life. The Youth Summit on Water and Climate Change in Bolivia is an example.

Acknowledge that children can bring about change

In view of UNICEF’s position that children must participate in decisions that affect them, UNICEF helps set up platforms, children’s advocates and participation in conferences of the United Nations on this issue. It feels that young people can help others adopt more ecologically sensitive lifestyles and hopefully change how their community thinks about these issues.

Take action to prevent the worst impact of climate change on children

UNICEF is also helping to make infrastructure that will be safe for children even in the face of climate change, such as schools, health centers and sanitation or water facilities. This will make it easier to keep children well cared for, despite social and economic disparities. The primary areas where UNICEF assists governments in achieving this include water, sanitation and hygiene services, and sustainable energy use and disaster risk response in schools as well as in health centers. This is done by providing water sensing resources, solar pumps and fridges, smart energy and water management systems, and solar power for basic services including lighting, heating and medical equipment power – such as sterilization, vaccine preparation and the vaccine cold chain which are so important in developing countries.

Cut down on emissions and pollution

UNICEF aims to support governments in reducing the number of pneumonia cases, to reduce pollution, restrict consumption of energy and water, and also to reduce its own carbon footprint in UNICEF offices worldwide.

Journal reference:

Unicef.org. (2019). Environment and climate change. https://www.unicef.org/environment-and-climate-change

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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