Younger Generations Will Suffer Far More Extreme Events Due to Climate Crisis

Children born in 2020 will endure 7x more heatwaves than someone born in 1960.

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New research shows that people born today will experience many more extreme heatwaves and other climate catastrophes over their lifetimes than their grandparents did. While this may come as no surprise to those with an interest in and knowledge of the situation in which we currently find ourselves, this study is the first to highlight extreme intergenerational injustice by contrasting the experiences of different age groups.

The research, published in Science, combined projections from sophisticated climate modeling computer programs with detailed population and life expectancy stats and global temperature predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change.

The World We Bequeath to Future Generations

The analysis showed that children born in 2020 will endure, on average, 30 extreme heat waves during their lives—seven times more than someone born in 1960. They will also experience three times more crop failures and river floods than those who are 60 years old today, and up to twice as many droughts and wildfires.

But the results varied significantly, depending on location. The 53 million children born in Europe and Central Asia between 2016 and 2020 will experience around four times more extreme events in general through their lives, while the 172 million children born in sub-Saharan Africa over this period will face nearly six times more extreme events. The researchers noted that this shows the disproportionate climate burden for young generations in the Global South. 

Professor Wim Thiery at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, who led the research, said, “Our results highlight a severe threat to the safety of young generations and call for drastic emission reductions to safeguard their future.” He noted that people under 40 today were set to live “unprecedented” lives, i.e. suffering heatwaves, droughts, floods, and crop failures that would have been virtually impossible—0.01% chance—without global heating.

Younger generations will also disproportionately bear the burden of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees. A 2019 analysis in Carbon Brief showed that today's children will have to emit eight times less carbon dioxide over the course of their lifetimes than their grandparents. 

Limiting Intergenerational Injustices

The picture may seem bleak; however, as a member of the study team, Dr. Katja Frieler, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said, “The good news is that we can take much of the climate burden from our children's shoulders if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by phasing out fossil fuel use.”

The study showed that rapidly reducing emissions to keep global heating to 1.5 degrees would reduce the heatwaves today's children have to experience by almost 50%. The number of heatwaves experienced would reduce by a quarter if temperatures are kept below two degrees of warming. 

The analysis found that only those aged under 40 today will live to see the consequences of the choices made on emissions cuts, and that those who are older will be gone before the impacts of those choices become apparent. But those who are older will need to help limit intergenerational injustices by setting ambitious pledges and sticking to them. 

The United Nations' COP26 climate summit in November will be the stage where the fate of younger generations and future children is decided. Youth strike protestors are already using their voices to point out that those who did the least to cause the problems are suffering—and will suffer the most. And no matter what generation we belong to, we all have a role to play.

View Article Sources
  1. Thiery, By Wim, et al. "Intergenerational Inequities in Exposure to Climate Extremes." Science, 2021, doi:10.1126/science.abi7339

  2. Hausfather, Zeke. "Analysis: Why Children Must Emit Eight Times CO2 Than Thier Grandparents." Carbon Brief, 2019.