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Climate change harms the health of children

Today’s children face lifelong health effects from the global crisis

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Climate change and children

“The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change,” the Lancet Countdown of 2019 reported. 

The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change is an international collaborative effort of 35 academic institutions and UN agencies from every continent to observe and monitor the health risks of climate change. It releases an annual assessment of the state of climate change and human health. 

The global report of 2019 “tracks the relationship between health and climate change across five key domains and 41 indicators,” according to the report’s website. It is accompanied by country-specific reports that apply the global indicator data to the policies and impacts within the respective country. The U.S.-specific policy brief was released in collaboration with the American Public Health Association. 

Key findings of last year’s report show a pattern of emerging potential exposure to more diseases, extreme heat, extreme weather events, and nutrition insecurity. 

“We’re seeing … widespread emergence of extreme heat,” Dr. Jeremy Hess said. 

Hess is a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and global health and emergency medicine at the UW and is also a co-author of the Lancet Countdown report. 

These climate events affect global human health in both direct and indirect ways, the outcomes ranging from injuries and illnesses to mortality. People may be impacted by climate change through extreme weather and climate events, changes in air quality, decreases in food availability, and migration. The health consequences of these events can include higher exposure to diseases, undernutrition, and mental stress due to relocation and occupational impacts.  

Although the health consequences of climate change affect everyone, we all experience the impacts differently. 

“The health risks of climate change are and will continue to be distributed inequitably, with vulnerable populations and regions differentially affected,” global health professor and Lancet Countdown co-author Dr. Kristie Ebi said. 

Those vulnerable populations include older people, impoverished people in third-world countries, people with mental illness, and so on. 

“Anybody who is reliant on somebody else for their care is more vulnerable to a lot of climate-sensitive exposures,” Hess said. 

Children are expected to severely suffer from such health consequences because of their heightened physiological sensitivities, their greater exposure to weather and climate conditions, and their lack of ability to take protective actions and control their own environment. 

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The Lancet Countdown stresses that, without accelerated intervention, children born today will have to deal with lifelong health complications as they grow up in a progressively warming world, one with increasing air pollution, food insecurity, violence, migration related to sea level rise, and many other stressors. 

The report samples ways in which climate change damages a child’s health, tracing harms from the womb to adolescence and beyond. For example, the report found that 152 of 196 countries experienced an increase in annual daily population exposure to wildfires in 2015–2018, compared with 2001–2004. Increased wildfires contribute to carbon pollution and consequently to poorer air quality and rising temperatures. This can result in poor pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth, low birth weight, and neonatal death. Developing bodies are less capable of controlling their temperature, therefore a child exposed to extreme heat has a higher risk for heat-related illness, fatal heat strokes, and worsening of heart and lung diseases. 

Climate change can also have a negative impact on a child’s ability to function normally as they go through their everyday life. Poor air quality can damage developing brains and induce more frequent asthma attacks. Exposure to extreme heat hinders the ability to think, play sports, and succeed in school and work, and it decreases the potential for outdoor recreation. 

All of these stressors can happen simultaneously on top of malnutrition due to increasing food insecurity related to rising temperatures and sea levels. 

Climate change will continue to harm children’s health if immediate action isn’t taken and everything continues to progress in a business-as-usual manner. 

There have been efforts, both individually and globally, to keep the global temperature rise to “well below 2 [degrees Celsius],” as outlined in the Paris Agreement. However, evidence shows that the world is neither staying business-as-usual nor doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The United States as a country is “not going the right direction,” Hess said. 

President Trump began the process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement entirely shortly after taking office.

Countries will report their updated commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the 2020 annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

According to the Lancet Countdown authors, immediate actions on a large scale need to be taken by countries and the 7 billion people on this planet in order to “transform the health of a child born today for the better, throughout their lives.” 

Reach contributing writer Nhung Phan at Twitter: @nhvngphan

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