13 November 2019
By Adam Vaughan
A child born today faces far-reaching health impacts from living through a world 4°C warmer than humans have ever experienced, according to a major assessment released today. But the research doesn’t support claims by some climate activists that children may not grow up at all.
The 2019 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, put together by doctors and researchers, warns that children are particularly vulnerable to climate change, because a warming world exposes them to more infectious diseases, malnutrition and stunted growth, and dirty air that hinders the development of their lungs.
A major concern is Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that leads to diarrhoeal disease, the world’s number two killer of children under the age of 5. People are most susceptible in certain coastal areas, and the percentage of these at-risk regions has already grown almost a third in the Baltic and north-east US since the 1980s as warming changes sea surface temperatures.
Elizabeth Robinson at the University of Reading, UK, one of the report’s authors, says children’s diets are also at risk, with under nutrition and malnutrition set to rise as climate change causes food production to fall. “We are a little concerned with a triple negative,” she says.
Heat is already causing yields of crops to fall in some places – such as wheat in Australia – and many of the yield declines are expected in countries that are food insecure, and the productivity of farms will be hit as labourers struggle with heat. All of this means that children face a poorer diet.
In some places, higher temperatures will trap more air pollution in cities, says another report author, Nicholas Watts, a medical doctor at University College London. This will have a particular impact on children. “It has lifelong effects on your lungs as they are trying to develop,” he says.
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Watts says the current trajectory of global carbon emissions means that we are on track for more warming than the worst case scenario – of a 2.8-4.6°C rise by between 2080 and 2100 – so 4°C is a conservative estimate of what a person born today might experience. That assumes a global average life expectancy of 71.
The report follows recent claims that rising temperatures mean children may not grow up at all. “People probably sometimes ask you: what are you going to be when you grow up? But we’ve reached a point in human history where the question also has to be asked: what are you going to do if you grow up?” Rupert Read, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, told children in July.
His remarks were condemned last month by climate scientists for straying beyond what science says. Read tells New Scientist his comments stem not just the risk to children from individual issues such as infectious diseases and malnutrition but “potential societal collapse”, and the need to err on the side of precaution.
The health impacts of climate change don’t need exaggerating: the Lancet Countdown report lays out dire impacts for well-being if emissions go unchecked. On the positive side, the report makes clear that acting on climate change could actually improve health compared with conditions today.
Watts points out that a child born in the UK today will, by the age of 6 years old, live in a country without coal power stations. By 21, they will be unable to buy a petrol car – a date that politicians have hinted may come much earlier. When 31, they will live in a society that should have hit net-zero emissions, with cycling and walking much more prevalent.
“By the time you reach net zero, you have cleaner air, healthier diets, more liveable cities, you have stronger, more resilient health systems,” says Watts. Which one of those two pathways we pick is entirely a political question, he adds. “It’s now entirely a question of implementation, of getting on with it.”
Journal reference: The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S040-6736(19)32596-6
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