Why climate change matters for children

Friends sometimes ask me why UNICEF – whose mandate is to advocate for the protection of children’s rights – is involved in the climate change debate. The answer is simple: the very future of today’s children and of their children is at stake.

Decisions we make now will play a huge role in determining what that future will look like for children like my own daughters, who are now 11 and 13 years old. The 21st United Nations climate change conference, also known as COP21, is a great opportunity to get on the right track.

The science is clear: we need to ambitiously cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global temperature increases. Failure to take decisive action will seriously damage the future of our children and of the planet they will inherit.

We know climate change leads to rising sea levels that threaten entire island states and coastal regions. We know it leads to increasingly frequent and dangerous floods, droughts, heatwaves and other extreme weather events. And we know that children will be disproportionately affected.

Children shoulder the bulk of the global burden of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, diarrhoea that are exacerbated by extreme weather events. When their families lose their livelihood to disaster, children are at risk of undernutrition, which in turn can lead to delayed mental development and premature death. And they are most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse when extreme weather sends communities fleeing their homes.

Children & climate change

Climate change will affect everybody, but some communities are more exposed than others, in areas ranging from the Mekong Delta to the Caribbean, from Pacific islands to the Horn of Africa. We cannot allow climate change to spiral out of control.

A UNICEF report – called Unless we act now – shows that about one in four of the world’s 2.3 billion children live in areas where floods are extremely frequent, almost 160 million live in areas where droughts are particularly severe, and more than 115 million children are in areas with a high to extremely high risk of tropical cyclones – known as hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones, depending on the region.

As is often the case, the world’s poorest face some of the greatest risks. Of the 530 million children living in extremely flood-prone areas, 300 million are in countries where half or more of the population live in poverty – on $3.10 a day. And there is little doubt that increasingly severe and frequent weather events would dramatically hamper efforts to end poverty.

Climate change is not an abstract concept. It is happening now. Some of the impacts of the emissions already released into the atmosphere are irreversible. But we have an obligation to our children to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels.

Children clearly have a right to look forward to inheriting a world that is livable, a world where they will one day look forward to raising their own children. That is certainly what I wish for my two daughters.

Alex Heikens, who is currently at the COP21 in Paris, is UNICEF’s Senior Adviser on Climate and Environment