Climate change policies neglect children's mental health and specific needs, study reveals

In a recent review article published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, public health experts discussed the critical need for health policies that integrate child-specific adaptation measures to address children's heightened vulnerability to climate change.

Their analysis of 160 adaptation policies revealed that only 72% included child-relevant measures. The predominant domains were education, nutrition, and community engagement, but none addressed children's mental health needs.

Study: Child health prioritisation in national adaptation policies on climate change: a policy document analysis across 160 countries. Image Credit: SUKJAI PHOTO / ShutterstockStudy: Child health prioritisation in national adaptation policies on climate change: a policy document analysis across 160 countries. Image Credit: SUKJAI PHOTO / Shutterstock

Background

Children are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as they are dependent on caregivers, have specific physiological characteristics, and are exposed for extended periods over their lifetimes.

Climate change directly impacts children's health through extreme climatic events and indirectly through factors like malnutrition, air pollution, and infectious diseases. Despite this, national policies have often inadequately addressed children's needs.

Early frameworks like the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) and their successors, National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and Health National Adaptation Plans (HNAPs), aim to enhance climate resilience and health system adaptation, but few have integrated child-specific considerations.

International bodies emphasize the necessity of incorporating children's perspectives into climate policies. However, there has been little research on how well national adaptation policies target child health, leaving a significant gap in understanding and action.

About the study

This study investigated the extent of integration of child health as a target in national adaptation policies, identifying predominant adaptation domains such as education, community engagement, and nutrition while highlighting the neglect of this population's mental health needs.

Researchers gathered a national adaptation policy from 218 countries, prioritizing documents with substantial health-related content. These policies were sourced through Google, governmental websites, United Nations databases, and the European Climate Adaptation Platform and included papers in various languages, translated into English as necessary.

The analysis followed a thematic framework, and researchers conducted a line-by-line analysis of HNAPs to identify child-specific adaptation measures and define relevant terminology inductively.

Three researchers coded the HNAPs, resolving disagreements through discussion. The resulting codebook was applied to the entire sample of policy documents.

For broader analysis, keywords from the HNAPs were used to code additional NAPAs and NAPs. Domains and countries organized emerging themes were ranked based on the extent to which they included child-specific measures concerning their ranking in the Children's Climate Risk Index. The study also explored various conceptualizations of children within these policies using a lens-based approach informed by contemporary childhood theories.

Findings

The study analyzed 160 national adaptation policies for child-specific health measures related to climate change, identifying policies from 160 out of 218 countries. The documents included 22 HNAPs, 119 NAPs, and 19 NAPAs.

The majority of these documents came from middle-income and high-income countries, but low-income countries had the highest proportion of adaptation policies available.

The analysis revealed 19 adaptation themes, 16 of which were child-specific, such as strengthening public health infrastructure, disaster preparedness, disease surveillance, environmental pollution control, and improving water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).

Education and awareness-raising were the most common themes mentioned by 63% of countries.

However, the coverage of child-specific measures varied significantly by country income status, with low and middle-income countries emphasizing health infrastructure, equity, WASH, and poverty alleviation, while high-income countries focused on city planning and environmental monitoring.

Only five countries—Austria, Jordan, Samoa, Sudan, and Timor-Leste—included comprehensive child-specific adaptation measures across multiple domains. In contrast, 44 countries had no child-specific measures.

Conclusions

The study highlighted the need for better integration of child-specific health measures in national adaptation policies to effectively address climate change-related risks.

The findings reveal a significant gap in national adaptation policies regarding the integration of child health considerations, with only 3% of countries addressing child-specific adaptation measures substantively.

The majority of countries either barely mentioned child-related measures or omitted them altogether. The study highlights several significant gaps, including the lack of mental health programs for children, the perpetuation of harmful gender roles, and the failure to recognize children as active agents in climate adaptation.

The research underscores the necessity for a systematic approach to integrating child health needs into all adaptation policies, advocating for comprehensive frameworks that address various domains such as health systems, food security, and sanitation.

The findings emphasize the importance of involving children in policy planning, recognizing their diverse needs and roles, and ensuring their participation as co-creators in adaptation efforts.

Future research should focus on evaluating the implementation of these policies and exploring effective strategies to safeguard children's health in the context of climate change.

By addressing these gaps and promoting child-centered approaches, policies can better protect and empower children, contributing to a more resilient and equitable response to climate challenges.

Journal reference:
  • Child health prioritisation in national adaptation policies on climate change: a policy document analysis across 160 countries. Zangerl, K.E., Hoernke, K., Andreas, M., Dalglish, S.L., Kelman, I., Nilsson, M., Rockloev, J., Bärnighausen, T., McMahon, S.A. The Child & Adolescent Health (2024). DOI: 10.1016/S2352-4642(24)00084-1, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(24)00084-1/fulltext
Priyanjana Pramanik

Written by

Priyanjana Pramanik

Priyanjana Pramanik is a writer based in Kolkata, India, with an academic background in Wildlife Biology and economics. She has experience in teaching, science writing, and mangrove ecology. Priyanjana holds Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation (National Centre of Biological Sciences, 2022) and Economics (Tufts University, 2018). In between master's degrees, she was a researcher in the field of public health policy, focusing on improving maternal and child health outcomes in South Asia. She is passionate about science communication and enabling biodiversity to thrive alongside people. The fieldwork for her second master's was in the mangrove forests of Eastern India, where she studied the complex relationships between humans, mangrove fauna, and seedling growth.

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