When many of us think about climate change, we think first about children.
It’s primarily a matter of longevity. Adults have witnessed record-setting temperatures and wildfires the size of small states and may expect them to worsen rapidly without serious climate action. But the point where the future becomes unimaginable – a place of widespread food shortages and permanently drowned cities – seems to belong to our children’s lifespans, not to our own.
Recently, however, doctors, scientists, and researchers have found evidence that, in its current iteration, the climate emergency already is worse for kids than it is for their parents. In August, UNICEF released a report titled “The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis,” which aims to quantify the climate-related risks borne by children around the world while shedding light on how the stresses of climate change interact with their unique vulnerabilities.
According to UNICEF, 240 million children right now are “highly exposed” to coastal flooding, 330 million to riverine flooding, 820 million to heatwaves, 920 million to water scarcity, and two billion to dangerously high levels of pollution. The last figure represents 90% of children globally.
“Children are more vulnerable than adults to extreme weather, droughts and floods. They cannot control their level of exposure in the same way adults can, and are less able to survive the impacts of these events,” the report’s authors write.
Moreover, children have a greater susceptibility to “diseases that will proliferate with climate change, such as malaria and dengue. Nearly 90% of the global burden of disease associated with climate change is borne by children under the age of five.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has made similar observations, using data from Southern California to note a 56% rise in the rate of hospital admissions for asthma among five- to 19-year-olds in the aftermath of a major wildfire, for instance.
The AAP has also highlighted the particular hardships experienced by children displaced by extreme weather events, which cause “irreparable harm through devastation of [their] broader social context,” as evidenced by the public school system in Louisiana, which reported a disproportionate number of “problems related to attendance, academic performance, [and] behavior” among students who fled Hurricane Katrina.
Even in regions that have yet to see significant destruction, parents and psychologists have begun to speculate upon the mental and emotional burden shouldered by young people as they contemplate their climate future. How should a child deal with feelings of hopelessness, anger, or betrayal by their elders, not to mention a fearsome political call to arms?
Timothy Walsh Whitney, a mental health counselor in Brattleboro, VT, treats primarily kids between the fourth and 12th grades. He cautioned that parents and caregivers should avoid apocalyptic prognoses (“scare tactics,” as he put it), which could hamper young people’s ability to meet the real problems of climate change as they emerge.
“I think one way to try to manage that fear is to honor where we’re at in time and what we can do, and also to stay present and not lose our sense of humor and our humanity,” he said.
In his experience, however, kids today still tend to dwell far more upon the stressors of their immediate environment than upon the specter of climate change.
“In all honesty, in the past 16 or 18 months, Covid has definitely taken front stage in terms of anxieties about scary things,” he observed. “I think the impacts are more direct and day-to-day.”
Twelve-year-old Brette Fialko Casey, of Burlington, VT, learned about climate change in the third grade, when her teacher “did a whole lesson on, like, ‘This is what a carbon footprint is, and this is energy efficiency, renewable energy, windmills, sustainability, all that,’” she recalled.
In the classroom, the science of climate change comes up often and at length, but Burlington’s elementary and middle school curricula don’t delve much into “the economic or political side of it,” Fialko Casey reported.
The politics of climate justice may begin later, as exemplified by older adolescents like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, who addressed the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference at age 15. In the U.S., the Sunrise Movement – a self-described “youth movement to stop climate change” – has drawn attention for its sit-ins and other protests.
Volunteer Jesse Scarlato serves as the hub coordinator for Sunrise Montpelier, a small chapter of the nationwide organization. She spoke of the anxieties that inform young activists’ sense of urgency.
“When I think of saving money for a house, I think, what good is that going to do if there’s so much flooding and erratic weather in the future? When I think about how long it would take to go to college or go to graduate school, it’s like, ‘I should be spending that time organizing around climate, because we have so little time to turn things around,’” she explained.
“I think dealing with climate change is pushing us out of an individualism frame,” she added, “because things like that – owning a home or getting a degree – they aren’t going to save us. They aren’t going to make our lives better if we’re dealing with a level of climate catastrophe that we very well might be in the future.”
Brett Yates is a contributing writer for Green Energy Times. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.