Children and the climate crisis

Anna Triponel

November 22, 2022
Our key takeaway: UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Vanessa Nakate’s words say it all: “As hot as this year was, it may well be the coldest of the rest of our lives.” Looking at today and at projected scenarios of tomorrow, the finding from UNICEF in its latest report is the same: children are very much on the front line of the climate crisis. Today, close to 560 million children are already exposed to high heatwave frequency. By 2050, every child on the planet will be exposed to more frequent, longer lasting, and more severe heatwaves - even in a low greenhouse gas emission scenario. These findings reinforce the case for deeper emission cuts to avoid worst impacts, as well as adaptation and mitigation measures to face inevitable ones.

UNICEF released a report entitled “The coldest year of the rest of their live: Protecting children from the escalating impacts of heatwaves” (October 2022) which analyses the impact of four heat measures on children: high heatwave frequency, high heatwave duration, high heatwave severity and extreme high temperatures. The methodology cross-references a global map of areas exposed to the heat with a population dataset: 

  • Children are already on the front lines: The report finds that children have contributed less to the climate crisis, but they are already suffering the most of its effects. Children – especially infants and young children – are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of extreme heat. It poses risks to their health and well-being (e.g. severe dehydration, respiratory trouble), but also to their mental and emotional health, as well as affecting their social and educational rights. Currently, “around 559 million children are exposed to high heatwave frequency and around 624 million children are exposed to one of three other high heat measures – high heatwave duration, high heatwave severity or extreme high temperatures.” Heatwaves are a global threat, although they impact children differently depending on their region. 
  • Substantial emissions reduction to avoid worst-case scenarios: The report reveals that in 2050, a “million more children will be exposed to heat risks depending on the degree of global heating.” This finding is based on a comparison between two hypothetical scenarios in 2050: a ‘low greenhouse gas emission scenario’ with an estimated 1.7 degrees of warming in 2050 and a ‘very high greenhouse emission scenario’ with 2.4 degrees of warming. Yet the report warns that by 2050, “virtually every child on earth – over 2 billion children – is forecast to face more frequent heatwaves, regardless of whether the world achieves the low or the very high greenhouses emissions scenarios. However, in the worst-case scenario, more than 370 million additional children would be exposed to heatwaves of long duration. The frequency and duration of heatwaves are particularly dramatic, as they are expected to affect over three quarters of the world’s children. Each region will be concerned, albeit in different ways:  “Children in northern regions will face the most dramatic increases in high heatwave severity while by 2050, nearly half of all children in Africa and Asia will face sustained exposure to extreme high temperatures.”
  • Protecting children from the escalating impacts of heatwaves: The report “underscores the urgent need to adapt the services children rely on as unavoidable impacts of global heating unfold’. It also makes a case for more substantial emissions reduction, to prevent the worst impacts of the other high measures. The report delves into a range of climate actions to protect the children from climate devastation by adapting social services. A set of “4-P” solutions includes: the protection of children by adapting critical social services; the preparation of children to live in a climate-changed world; the prioritisation of children and young people in climate finance and resources; and the prevention of a climate catastrophe by drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keep 1.5°C alive.

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