But what, exactly, do tomorrow’s children face? Over the last year, a group of over 100 engineers, doctors, climatologists, and energy experts from 35 global institutions worked to find out as part of the annual Climate Countdown report, published each year by the journal The Lancet.
“Children are the most vulnerable to the health effects of climate change and the least responsible for these effects,” Nick Watts, executive director of the 2019 report, out today, explains. “But they also stand the most to gain from all of the exciting things we can do to respond to climate change.”
Spoiler alert: the future is bleak.
Children born today will be sicker and die younger under the grip of climate change, according to the 2019 report
Climate change shapes children’s health at every stage of development, from the womb to the grave. A baby born on this day, November 13, 2019, faces two futures, Watts says. If international powers meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, in the future, the air may be cleaner, cities healthier, and resiliency against natural disasters higher. But if not, that child’s future may be marked by food insecurity, increased exposure to infectious disease and air pollution, and greater vulnerability to natural disasters.
“The faces of climate change aren’t icebergs or polar bears, but the faces of our children, aging parents, less fortunate neighbors, and if that isn’t enough, then your own,” Renee Salas, lead author of the report and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said.
Growing up on a future Earth
Across the globe, about 250 babies are born every minute. The child born today will likely live to 2090, Watts says. That means that they will — if current trends continue — live in a world four degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels.
“We roughly know what that looks like from a climate perspective,” Watts says. “We have no idea what that looks like for public health perspective, but we know it is catastrophic. We know that it has the potential to undermine the last fifty years of gains in public health and overwhelm the health systems that we rely on.”
So what will happen to these brand-new babies according to the report? Let’s follow one hypothetical baby born today — we’ll call her Charlie. Climate change threatened Charlie’s life from the moment that she was conceived.
In a warmer world, pregnant mothers — and their unborn babies — will have access to fewer nutrients and energy. A hotter planet threatens food stocks, exacerbating the global burden of malnutrition, and making food more expensive and inaccessible. The average global yield of food staples like maize, wheat, soybeans, and rice declined over the past 30 years — a trend that will continue. Kids like Charlie who are born in this food-strapped environment may be cognitively and physically stunted, or starve.
Meanwhile, air pollution — the sneaky, sometimes invisible particles that (really) can kill you — accumulates while Charlie is in the womb. Exposure to toxic air will affect Charlie as she grows up. Throughout adolescence and beyond, air pollution exposure damages vital organs like the heart, lungs, and brain.
In Charlie’s lifetime, Europe’s economy and health system will lose $129 billion every year from air pollution-related disease and deaths — and she could be one of the casualties. Ultimately, almost 3 million premature deaths will result from outdoor air pollution.
Charlie will be threatened by increased rates of disease and infection. Last year, 2018, was the second most climatically suitable year on record for the spread of bacteria that cause diarrhoeal disease and wound infection, the report says.
On our warmer planet, dengue-carrying mosquitoes will invade new territories. Currently, about half of the world’s population is at risk for dengue, a mosquito-borne virus that can be life-threatening within hours of exposure.
To make matters worse, health systems, already overburdened and at capacity, will likely be unable to handle the predicted boom of disease.
In the next 50 years, Charlie will likely experience extreme weather events, too. Wildfires, hurricanes, and heat waves will turn lives all over the world upside down. That means Charlie and her 2019 peers could lose their future homes to fire or flooding, and spend years rebuilding what they lost. Last year was the fourth hottest year on record, and when Charlie grows up, She will become more vulnerable to spikes in temperature, too.
Building a brighter future
The report details a scary world ahead, marked by instability and uncertainty. But this future, while troubling, isn’t inevitable.
“If people want to look at the bottom line cost of climate change, they will see that the largest cost is doing nothing and the second largest cost is not demanding immediate action today,” said Gina McCarthy, professor at Harvard University and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President Obama.
The authors outline four strategies countries can act on now to protect children’s health:
- The rapid and complete phase out coal-fired power worldwide.
- High income countries make $100 billion of investment into low-income countries to help them deal with the damage from climate change.
- Improve public and active transport systems like walking and cycling.
- Invest in health systems better treat patients with climate-related health complications.
Some places are already making moves to protect their future children. Charlie could have a healthier, more sustainable future, if action is taken now.
“A child born today in the United Kingdom, by their sixth birthday, will see a complete phase out of coal,” Watts explained. “That means that they may not know what a coal plant looks like if they’re born in the United Kingdom.” Thirty-two other countries have also committed to curb their use of coal, Watts said.
That’s not the only thing that will change for Charlie. “If they’re in Western Europe, they won’t be able to buy a diesel car or petrol car. And if we’ve done it right, they won’t want a car at all. They will be living in more livable cities, healthier cities, they will be cycling, walking to work because we will have the infrastructure to support that,” Watts said.
Limiting warming to below 2 degrees celsius would allow Charlie to live in a world which reaches net-zero emissions by her 31st birthday. Combined with the new report’s recommendations, children like Charlie could be breathing cleaner air, living longer, and staying out of the hospital.
A lot of children around the world are fighting for this future.
Some children are even suing the United States government for failing to protect their quality of life or health.
“Children are marching in the street because they recognize that their health and wellbeing and quality of life is being robbed,” Salas said.
This report suggests we need to heed their cries — for all of our sakes.