Climate Change a 'Child Rights Crisis,' UNICEF Says

Report says 1 billion children face extreme impacts from climate-related hazards.

boys on a seesaw

Tom Wilde/Getty Images

Doctor. Lawyer. Engineer. Teacher. Artist. Astronaut. These are just a few of the most common careers to which kids aspire. At the rate things on Earth are going, however, there’s just one thing that millions of children are destined to become: climate refugees.

So suggests international children’s charity UNICEF, which has just published a new report in which it estimates that one billion children worldwide are at "extremely high risk" of being victimized by climate change.

Titled "The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index," the report is billed as the first comprehensive analysis of climate risk from a child’s perspective. In it, UNICEF asserts that climate change is about not only the health of the planet, but also the health of the children who will soon inherit it. To that end, it ranks countries around the world based on children’s exposure to environmental shocks from climate change, as well as their vulnerability to those shocks as measured by their access to services—or rather, their lack thereof.

The one billion children who are most at risk—nearly half the world’s 2.2 billion youth—live in one of 33 climate-vulnerable countries, the most perilous of which are the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau. Along with multiple climate shocks, UNICEF says children in these countries face a scarcity of clean water and sanitation, a lack of healthcare, and a paucity of education.

"For the first time, we have a complete picture of where and how children are vulnerable to climate change, and that picture is almost unimaginably dire," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a press release. "Climate and environmental shocks are undermining the complete spectrum of children’s rights, from access to clean air, food, and safe water to education, housing, freedom from exploitation, and even their right to survive. Virtually no child’s life will be unaffected."

Although it will be ruinous for half the world’s children, the truth is that nearly all kids on Earth will face consequences from at least one climate change-related hazard. For example, UNICEF says 240 million children are highly exposed to coastal flooding, 400 million to cyclones, 820 million to heatwaves, 920 million to water scarcity, and 1 billion to exceedingly high levels of air pollution.

One in three children—approximately 850 million kids—live in areas where at least four climate hazards overlap, and as many as one in seven children—330 million kids—live in areas affected by at least five climate hazards.

What's particularly cruel about the impact of climate change on children is that they didn’t cause it. Least of all those who are most affected by it: The 33 countries that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts collectively emit just 9% of global carbon emissions, according to UNICEF. Only one of those countries—India—is among the world’s top 10 polluters.

"Climate change is deeply inequitable. While no child is responsible for rising global temperatures, they will pay the highest costs. The children from countries least responsible will suffer most of all," Fore continued. "But there is still time to act. Improving children’s access to essential services, such as water and sanitation, health, and education, can significantly increase their ability to survive these climate hazards. UNICEF urges governments and businesses to listen to children and prioritize actions that protect them from impacts, while accelerating work to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

On that note, UNICEF has issued five calls to action. Specifically, it wants governments and businesses around the world to increase investment in climate adaptation and resilience in key services for children, including water, sanitation, health, and education; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45% by 2030; provide children with climate education and green skills; include young people in all national, regional, and international climate negotiations and decisions; and ensure that the recovery from the pandemic is "green, low-carbon, and inclusive" to protect the capacity of future generations to address and respond to climate change.

As Fore says in the report’s foreword, "We can ensure today’s children inherit a livable planet. Every action we take now can leave children a step ahead to prevent worse challenges in the future."

View Article Sources
  1. "The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis." United Nations Children's Fund, 2021.