Children will face more food shortages and infections if climate change continues unchecked, researchers from the World Health Organization and 34 other institutions warn.
Climate change is already harming children’s health. And they’re at risk for lifelong health threats unless the world meets Paris Agreement targets to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the scientists reported in the Nov. 14 issue of The Lancet.
“This year, the accelerating impacts of climate change have become clearer than ever,” said Hugh Montgomery, co-chair of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change.
“The highest recorded temperatures in Western Europe and wildfires in Siberia, Queensland and California triggered asthma, respiratory infections and heat stroke. Sea levels are now rising at an ever-concerning rate. Our children recognize this climate emergency and demand action to protect them. We must listen, and respond,” Montgomery said in a journal news release.
Montgomery is director of University College London’s Institute for Human Health and Performance, in the United Kingdom.
The health impact of climate change needs to be at the top of the agenda at the UN Climate Conference (COP25) next month in Madrid, the scientists urged.
Without action, children born today will live in a world that’s an average of more than 4 degrees Celsius warmer by age 71, posing a risk to their health at every stage of their lives, the report stated.
These children will face rising food prices and increased risk of malnutrition, according to the scientists. They noted there have been declines in average global yield potential of maize (−4%), winter wheat (−6%), soybean (−3%) and rice (−4%) over the past 30 years.
Children will also be at high risk from the climate change-related rise in infectious diseases. Last year was “the second most climatically suitable year on record” for the spread of bacteria that cause many cases of diarrhea and wound infection cases worldwide, the researchers noted.
Also, as kids born today progress through their teens, the health harms of air pollution will worsen. And as they move into adulthood, extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and wildfires, will intensify.
Meeting the Paris Agreement target to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius could allow a child born today to grow up in a world that reaches net-zero emissions by age 31 and to provide a healthier future for coming generations, according to the report.
The journal’s Countdown on Health and Climate Change is a yearly analysis of what action to meet the Paris Agreement targets — or inaction — means for human health. The project is a collaboration among 120 experts from 35 institutions.
According to Dr. Nick Watts, executive director of The Lancet Countdown, “Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants. The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime.”
Watts said, “Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in well-being and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation.”
The World Health Organization has more on climate change and health.