Seen but not heard: The climate crisis and children's rights

Some of 26 ice sculptures of children installed on New Brighton Beach begin to melt, as ice statues of children were installed as part of a giant sand artwork on New Brighton Beach to highlight global warming [Getty Images]
14 October, 2021
Vulnerable demographics will be the first to experience the knock-on effects of the climate crisis, none more so than children. With environmental factors responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million children under 5, the need to act now is paramount.

Newborn children across the world will on average face seven times more extreme heatwaves during their lives than their grandparents and will also live through almost three times more droughts, river flooding events, crop failures, and twice the number of wildfires than those who were born 60 years ago, a new study has found. 

The report, Intergenerational Inequities in Exposure to Climate Extremes, led by Wim Thiery – a climate scientist and Research Professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel – compares the climate risks of older generations with the extreme climate and weather risks that today’s children are likely to experience.

"Regional inequalities mean that while 53 million children born in Europe or Central Asia in 2016 will experience 4 times more extreme events, 172 million children of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa will have to endure an almost 6-fold increase in lifetime extreme events exposure and 50 times more heatwaves"

It also found that the impact of dramatic climate change will hit developing countries the most, widening the inequality that already exists across the world.

Poorer communities in the Western world will also be affected. London as a global city with two major financial districts will experience the impact of climate change over the next century. It will be in the most vulnerable and impoverished areas in London where the force of climate change will be felt the most.

For poorer areas, the risks of death from cardiorespiratory causes have increased by more than 10 percent for every 1°C increase in temperature compared to almost no effect in the more affluent and resilient areas in London.  The Greater London Authority’s research identified the increased possibility of dying would more than double on hot days like the hot summer of August 2003 in areas such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

In a borough like mine in Tower Hamlets, East London, 57 percent of children already live poverty. I have already noticed an increase in the number of local people needing help because the torrential rain is having a detrimental effect as these residents struggle to live in increasingly damp homes.

It is not just the poor who live in developing nations that suffer disproportionately from climate change. The UK is rich, and our borough has an economic output of over £27.9 billion, but it is still home to some of the poorest people in the country.  

As the climate crisis continues to deteriorate, apocalyptic scenes will become routine [Getty Images]
As the climate crisis continues to deteriorate, apocalyptic scenes will become ever more routine [Getty]

The study also concluded that children living in countries with lower and middle incomes would be affected the most, as they are already at risk from malnutrition and waterborne diseases and live in homes that are at an increased risk of flooding and extreme weather events.  It also showed that children living in disadvantaged communities would also suffer more, and this certainly relates to poorer and often Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority communities in the UK.

A global issue 

Environmental factors are responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million children under the age of five. Climate change impacts their access to the most basic necessities – food, water, clean air, education and healthcare. 

Afghan children already caught up in the country’s violent conflict now face the possibility of 18 times as many heatwaves as their elders, and children in Mali will experience ten times as many crop failures as their grandparents.

Until now, aspects of climate change, such as droughts or heatwaves, are usually studied by comparing different times these occur or comparing against discrete levels of warming.

By contrast, the International Inequality study takes a more holistic approach by attempting to bridge the gap between climate science and demography. This is done in part by quantifying the lifetime exposure to weather events such as droughts, heatwaves, crop failures, river floods, tropical cyclones and wildfires.

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The time determined the lifetime exposure for every generation born between 1960 and 2020 for every country in the world and for every likely global warming scenario.

The central aim of the 2015 Paris Agreement was to attempt to limit a rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C, but the report’s authors looked at a range of scenarios caused by a temperature rise of between 1 and 3.5 percent.

Regional inequalities mean that while 53 million children born in Europe or Central Asia in 2016 will experience four times more extreme events, 172 million children of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa will have to endure an almost six-fold increase in lifetime extreme events exposure and 50 times more heatwaves.

The climate crisis is not just an issue that can be tackled by a handful of nations. It has to be a collective effort across the globe. With China, India, the US and Russia emitting the most CO2 and these four countries consuming the most energy worldwide, they must do more to tackle climate change in order to make a difference. Without a collective effort, no amount of action by the UK will solve the problem.

 "It is time for everyone in a position of influence to step up and shoulder responsibility. Only then can we look to our children and grandchildren in the eye and tell them we have done our duty to the planet which they will inherit"

President of Cop26, Alok Sharma MP said, "We all need to play our part. Climate change affects us all, whether that’s Europe, Africa or Asia. We need all governments to accelerate the green transition so that we leave Glasgow with a clear plan to limit global warming to 1.5C.”

Sir Edward Davey, Leader of the Liberal Democrats said in his leadership speech, “The Government (UK) needs to do far, far more to make it easier for industry and people to play their part in tackling climate change.”

The International Inequality study reminds us that there is still time for countries to adapt to the realities of the new weather events, by installing flood barriers or improving building codes. Joeri Rogelj, Director of the Grantham Institution for Climate Change and the Environment, said that the study was to be “the start of looking at the lived experience of children being born today.”

Almost a third of the UK’s biggest companies have signed up the UN’s aim to eliminate their contribution to climate change by 2050. AstraZeneca, for example, has committed to becoming carbon negative across its entire value chain by 2030. Sky became carbon neutral in 2006 and has since reduced its carbon consumption by 55 percent. Canary Wharf has committed to the climate pledge and aims to deliver net-zero by 2030.

Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International, said the climate crisis is a child rights crisis at its core. "We need to scrap our dependency on fossil fuels, set up financial safety nets and support the hardest hit people. We can turn this around – but we need to listen to children and jump into action. If warming is limited to 1.5 degrees, there is far more hope of a bright future for children who haven't even been born yet.” 

Shobi Khan CEO of Canary Wharf believes, “We must all take responsibility for climate change and act now to reduce our emissions. It is time for everyone in a position of influence to step up and shoulder responsibility. Only then can we look to our children and grandchildren in the eye and tell them we have done our duty to the planet which they will inherit.”

Corporations, conglomerates, and businesses must act now – if they truly want to address the climate change crisis for a generation of children whose right to a healthier, sustainable, and more equal world is being denied.

Rabina Khan is a Liberal Democrat Councillor and Special Advisor, she writes opinion pieces for various papers and regularly appears in the media. Her book My Hair Is Pink Under This Veil was recently published by BiteBack publishers.

Follow her on Twitter: @RabinaKhan