The consequences of inaction will unfold over the lifetime of the next generation. What kind of world will they inherit from us?
Failure to act on climate change violates the human rights of children and young people — their right to survival, development, protection and participation in society. Right now, a quarter of the global population is aged 15 years or younger. The cumulative and compounding effects of global warming will escalate as these young people grow up.
In extreme climate events, children are the most defenceless. They are also more susceptible to disease, mental health issues and malnutrition, all of which will skyrocket as the planet heats. Work already undertaken by philanthropists to alleviate poverty and improve childhood development risks being undermined by climate change impacts.
Australia remains one of the highest per capita emitters of CO2 in the world. Children’s vulnerability and lack of independence places them in the firing line of many of the worst effects of global warming. Furthermore, it’s our children and grandchildren who will bear the brunt of climate impacts. Now, today, we must do everything in our power to ease that burden.
Climate and environmental shocks are undermining the complete spectrum of children’s rights, from access to clean air, food and safe water; to education, housing, freedom from exploitation, and even their right to survive. Virtually no child’s life will be unaffected.
— Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF
Relevant Sustainable Development Goals
Extreme weather events
Research suggests that extreme weather events caused by climate change stunt childhood development. A study of women who were pregnant during the 2011 Brisbane floods found that their children developed lower cognitive capacity, smaller vocabularies and less imaginative play by the age of two.
Floods, bushfires and other extreme weather events are more life-threatening for children because they cannot protect themselves. For example, age is the greatest risk factor for drowning worldwide, with the highest rates of drowning among children aged one to four. During extreme floods and storms, children are at greatest risk of death or injury.
Children are also most susceptible to the effects of heatwaves, which is particularly relevant for Australia where heatwave records are breaking most summers. Over the next decade, it’s predicted 175 million children will be affected by climate-related disasters each year.
Disease and malnutrition
Children will be especially vulnerable to contracting illnesses as climate change increases the spread and prevalence of disease. The World Health Organization believes that 85 per cent of global disease caused by climate change occurs in children under the age of five. Water-borne illnesses, such as diarrhea and cholera, are likely to increase as water quality is impacted by climate change, and these will disproportionately affect infants.
A warming climate affects agricultural patterns and water quality, with severe consequences for food production and malnutrition. A recent 19-country study of more than 100,000 children found that rising temperatures are already proving an equal or greater contributing factor to child malnutrition than factors such as poverty, sanitation or education. Australia is not immune to this trend. Research predicts that within 10 to 20 years, Australian children will experience stunting, anemia and malnutrition due to higher levels of CO2 concentration in staple crops and overall lower nutritional value. Climate change can dramatically escalate worrying health trends in children.
Young people are increasingly experiencing climate-related anxiety, leading to longer-term mental health problems. Four in five Australian young people report feeling somewhat or very anxious about climate change. Anxiety, trauma and other mental health issues are particularly prevalent in young people after natural disasters, with survivors of extreme weather catastrophes 50 per cent more likely to suffer from mental illness in the years afterwards. Australian children exposed to the Black Summer bushfires reported higher levels of mental health symptoms than others, which if untreated can exacerbate over time.
What funders can do
- Ensure skills, training and employment programs include preparing participants for employment in the burgeoning clean economy.
- Ensure youth mental health programs include guidance on climate grief and anxiety.
- Fund physical and mental health support for children and young people facing climate impacts like floods, bushfires and droughts, including for several years post-event.
- Target youth programs in communities at risk of being left behind in the transition to a clean economy, such as industrial zones like Gladstone, the Hunter Valley and the La Trobe Valley.
- Support young people to engage in climate policy development at international, federal and local government levels by providing travel scholarships, advocacy training and media training.
- Involve young people in philanthropic decision making such as through Board positions, placements, internships, staff roles and advisory councils.
- Ask youth organisations you already fund how climate change is affecting (or will affect) them and if they need support to adapt or to participate in a clean, net-zero emissions economy.