Climate change, conflict, and inequality target one demographic in particular — one that is also uniquely hindered from being able to protect itself: children.
And if you are a child in the United States, your odds of thriving in these uncertain times may not be as good as you think, a new report reveals.
In a report published Tuesday in the journal The Lancet, researchers rank 180 governments on how well they protect children from an uncertain future. They looked at climate change, health data, and how much children are targeted by commercial bad actors — think marketing for high-sugar foods and sodas.
Across nations, there is huge variability in how well countries do at protecting kids — and the ones that do the best job may not be the countries you expect. The US, for example, ranks far below the top ten — at number 39.
But ultimately, even the nations that rank high are not doing enough to protect their children's future, the researchers find.
“Climate change, ecological degradation, migrating populations, conflict, pervasive inequalities, and predatory commercial practices threaten the health and future of children in every country,” the researchers say.
In the new report, researchers rank where kids are “Flourishing” — which the researchers poetically define as the “the geometric mean of Surviving and Thriving” — by measuring children’s health, nutrition, and education.
They then looked at each country’s sustainability level — including emissions levels — and measures of equity, like income gaps.
These are the top 10 countries where kids are flourishing today:
10. United Kingdom
2. South Korea
“Not a single country performed well on all three measures of child flourishing, sustainability, and equity,” the researchers write.
All ten are considered high-income — and that is true of the top 33 countries included the index. But income levels don't dictate the results, the researchers say.
Norway, for instance, ranks #1 because of it has the best combination of child health outcomes, income levels, sustainability, and access to opportunity. But if you look at how well Norway performs on one of these factors alone — sustainability — it ranks just 156th out of the 1800 countries included. Not so laudable, then.
Likewise, South Korea and the Netherlands — spots #2 and #3 on the flourishing ranking — come in 166th and 160th on sustainability, respectively. All three countries have per capita carbon emissions more than 210 percent higher than the United Nations sustainability targets.
The report implies that in countries where kids are currently flourishing, excess emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases threaten the future.
The data presents a paradox: Some of the poorest countries included in the report have the lowest CO2 emissions per capita, and thus are the most sustainable by that measure. But they also have the furthest to go to truly support kids in leading healthy lives. Wealthier countries, on the other hand, can provide that support — but rampant CO2 pollution threatens the future of all children, the report finds.
United States: A case study
The US ranks 39th on the list of best places for children to flourish now, just below Bosnia and Herzegovina, and four spots ahead of China. That is a "poor" ranking compared with many other high-income countries, the study authors say, and even some middle-income countries.
Here is how the ranking breaks down:
Only 1.4 percent of foods targeted at kids in the US meet the guidelines set by the country's own Federal Trade Commission, the report finds.
The US ranks as the 11th most economically unequal country in the world.
On the sustainability list, it comes in at 173rd out of 180.
Essentially, children in the US are likely to have poor diets, setting them up for poorer health outcomes. They are also less likely to have access to opportunities in life, and their future may be under significant threat from climate change.
Kids face unique climate threats
Scientists predict that climate change will lead to a slew of health problems — and that those issues will only be worse for kids.
In November 2019, 120 international climate experts signed a statement calling for climate action to protect kids. Today’s children, the experts say, are at greater risk of climate-related health consequences than any generation before them. That is because the world they are inheriting is expected to be four degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial average.
“An unprecedented challenge demands an unprecedented response.” the researchers say.
“It will take the work of the 7.5 billion people currently alive to ensure that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate.”
Children may be disproportionately affected by climate change. As temperatures rise and heat waves grow more frequent, extreme heat is among the biggest health risks children face. Similarly, children are more likely to be affected by changes in crop production due to global warming.
Climate change may also contribute to anxiety and sleep issues — which can be particularly detrimental during development. Children need among the most hours of sleep out of any age group, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
And while air pollution is slightly separate from climate change, they share the same roots — like burning fossil fuels — and climate change is expected to worsen the effects of air pollution. A study published in February found that, in Barcelona, nearly half of all asthma cases were linked to air pollution.
With multiple factors converging to put kids in danger, experts warn that the time to act is now — and governments need to start the progress across different areas of society.
“Governments must harness coalitions across sectors to overcome ecological and commercial pressures to ensure children receive their rights and entitlements now and a liveable planet in the years to come,” the researchers say.