The Climate Crisis: An existential threat to children and their rights

Amina* (27) and her family are impacted by the drought in Somalia and receive support from Save the Children's water trucking project. Credit: Sacha Myers/Save the Children
The Climate Crisis: An existential threat to children and their rights
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Thirty-two years ago today, world leaders made a promise to all children around the world to uphold their rights through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As the Earth is fundamentally and irreparably reshaped by the climate crisis, the rights of children today—and tomorrow—are in crisis.

The climate emergency, created by adults, is impacting children and their rights first and worst, with serious implications for both current and future generations of children. Children are bearing the brunt of a crisis that is not of their making.

Just a few weeks ago, leaders gathered in Glasgow at the COP26 Climate Summit. Despite promises that this would be a turning point for action on climate, and the most inclusive COP ever, it was clear from the outcome that leaders are still not doing enough to protect children and their rights.

In Save the Children’s recent report, Born Into the Climate Crisis: Why we must act now to secure children’s rights, new research by an international team of climate researchers led by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel set out the devastating impact of the climate crisis on children. Using the original Paris Agreement emission reduction pledges, the data show that a child born in 2020 will experience on average twice as many wildfires; 2.8 times the exposure to crop failures; 2.6 times as many drought events; 2.8 times as many river floods; and 6.8 times more heatwaves across their lifetime compared to a person born in 1960.

Diya, a 16-year-old girl from Bangladesh who helped develop this report, told us, “Global warming is rising day by day. Children of our generation are approaching a future with huge risks. We are facing the most impact from it when we are least responsible for it”.

The data also confirms what we already know to be true: children from low- and middle-income countries, and those most impacted by inequality and discrimination, are hardest hit. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child applies to all children, everywhere, yet the climate crisis is disproportionately harming children who are already left furthest behind—and will continue to do so for future generations.

However, the future does not have to look this bleak for children. According to the same modelling, if global warming is limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels the risk of additional exposure for children born in 2020 would significantly decrease: by 45% for heatwaves; 39% for drought; 38% for river floods; 28% for crop failures; and 10% for wildfires. Lowering the risk of exposure to extreme weather events will mean that many more children will not go hungry, will be able to continue learning, will be safe from violence, and ultimately will be able to thrive.

Figure: Potential reduction of additional lifetime exposure to extreme events of children born in 2020 by limiting warming to 1.5°C instead of higher temperature under Paris Agreement pledges

The importance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is mentioned in the final text of COP26, but it is essential that leaders now take urgent action to ensure we reach this target.

High-income countries that are most responsible for the climate crisis, and have reaped the economic benefits from producing emissions, have a unique responsibility to lead on climate action. They need to address emission rates and their carbon debt by contributing a fair share to climate finance—something that was critically missing in COP26 commitments. Investments in adaptation and mitigation will yield multiple social, environmental and economic returns; for example, an investment of USD 1.8 trillion in five key areas of adaptation over a period of 10 years could generate USD 7.1 trillion in total net benefits.

Children are being impacted now by the climate crisis and must be heard

The climate crisis is not just going to affect children and their rights in the distant future—we are seeing the devastating impacts right now. The hunger crisis is currently worsening across many regions, bringing millions of children to the brink of starvation. However, the funds needed to save lives are not there. High-income countries must address the unjust imbalance of loss and damage by supporting and developing new and additional funds, as well as a new financing mechanism.

Most importantly, children, who are the real experts on their own lives, have the right to be heard and influence decisions. Children around the world are providing crucial leadership in the climate space—from leading global movements such as “Friday For Future” or taking countries to court for not doing enough to tackle the crisis. Despite their leadership, children’s voices are routinely overlooked or even excluded from climate decisions.

Fourteen-year-old Emmanuel from Norway, who also helped us develop the Born Into the Climate Crisis report told us: “We children are maybe not climate scientists, but we know something important. We must act now!”

There were assurances that COP26 would be the “most inclusive ever”; in reality it was the opposite. At COP26, children and young people told us that they were not heard—particularly those who are on the front line of the climate crisis—and the space was far from being “child-friendly”.

But it is not too late. If we start now, we can ensure that children have real opportunities to engage in national climate discussions leading up to and during COP27.

World Children’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on how far children’s rights have come since the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is clear from the outcome of COP26 that, despite the overwhelming scientific, economic and moral case, leaders have failed children—and younger generations will pay the price of inaction. We must act now to make the rights in the Convention a reality for all children. 

Read the OECD report Measuring What Matters for Child Well-being and Policies, which lays the groundwork for improved child well-being measurement and better data to inform better child well-being policies

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