Climate Change: A looming threat to children’s health

Representational Image. Photo from freepik

Machane Daniel Issac

  • Read Time 3 min.

As the world grapples with the urgent and far-reaching consequences of climate change, the recently concluded 28th Conference of the Parties (CoP 28) has left the international community at a critical juncture. The outcome of CoP 28 underscores the pressing need for global cooperation and decisive action to mitigate the impacts of climate change, particularly on the most vulnerable members of our society—our children. As world leaders convened to address the escalating climate crisis, the stark reality remains that the younger generation is on the frontlines of this global challenge.

Climate change poses serious risks to human health, with children bearing a disproportionate burden of the negative consequences. As greenhouse gas concentrations rise, changes in weather patterns, temperature, precipitation, and extreme events are already underway across the globe. What is dangerous about climate change is that the changes are “irreversible” in human time. These changes amplify existing health threats and introduce new hazards threatening the world’s 2.3 billion children.

Respiratory Impacts: Higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels exacerbate pollen, pollution, and ground-level ozone – key triggers for respiratory illness. Asthma rates have surged over recent decades as pollen seasons lengthen. Children experience more severe attacks needing emergency care and hospitalization. Drought conditions concentrate particulate matter, exacerbating lung disease. Fossil fuel reliance further pollutes the air. Indoor smoke from wood-burning stoves also causes chronic respiratory disease. Overall, climate change is estimated to cause additional deaths yearly between 2030-2050 from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

Infectious Disease Risks: Climate change expands habitats for disease vectors like mosquitos and ticks, increasing vector-borne diseases. Malaria, currently killing thousands annually, could expand with additional deaths annually in the coming years. Dengue fever risk rises sharply with warming. Encephalitis, Lyme disease and other emerging threats also rise with warming and extreme weather. Diarrheal infections from food and water contamination increase with floods and droughts, already killing hundreds of children globally.

Heat Morbidity and Mortality: Extreme heat waves threaten children directly. Their cardiovascular and respiratory systems handle heat less effectively than adults. Exertion, chronic disease, low-income environments, and lack of air conditioning increase vulnerability. Annual heat-related deaths are projected to climb. Urban children face amplified threats.

Extreme Weather Mortality and Injury: The frequency and severity of storms, floods, fires, and droughts are accelerating, with children at high risk for death, injury and psychological trauma. Post-traumatic stress from weather disasters can damage development and persist longer in children. Increased precipitation raises water pollution disease risk, causing deaths from diarrheal disease.

Food Supply Disruptions: While climate change may initially boost some crop yields, rapid shifts in long-established growing conditions threaten nutritional deficits. Temperature spikes above 1-2°C threaten major staple crop yields. Climate disruptions harm livestock health by reducing protein supplies. Mycotoxins from crop mold also become more prevalent. Childhood malnutrition impairs immune function and brain development.

Violence, Displacement and Uncertainty: The UN estimates between 25 million to 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change by 2050. Children suffer most from resource scarcity and mass migration. Drought doubling armed conflict risk in affected regions also impacts kids disproportionately. Environmental degradation’s mental health toll exacerbates substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies. Children inheriting accelerating climate changes experience grave uncertainty about their future world and prospects for personal safety.

Call to Action

Children will experience both the direct and indirect effects of climate change. Children, who inherit the consequences of decisions made today, are looking to global leaders for tangible commitments and bold initiatives that safeguard their health, security, and future prospects. Actions taken by all stakeholders will affect the magnitude and rate of global climate change and resultant health impacts. While climate health threats to children span the globe, lower-income tropical regions with limited infrastructure face amplified risks. Curbing greenhouse gas emissions remains imperative to prevent irreversible ecosystem disruption this century. Simultaneously enhancing health systems and disaster preparation can lessen unavoidable warming impacts. Individuals and governments at all levels must urgently work to fortify environmental protections, food and water security, sanitation, public health programs, alternative energy sources and transportation to safeguard children’s well-being.

As world leaders move forward from CoP 28, they must act decisively to shape a future where children inherit a planet that reflects our shared commitment to environmental stewardship and collective well-being.Our children’s future rests on the actions we collectively take today. The time for protective change is immediate and the duty is shared amongst all nations.The call to action is not just a global responsibility but a moral imperative.

The writer is a PhD student at the South Asian University.