For Youth, Global Climate Change is About Action, Not Debate: Children Vulnerable to Climate Effects

Kim Krisberg

Nations Health. 2008;38(2) 

In This Article

Changing Climate a Danger to Kids' Health

Young people aren't only talking about the relationship of climate change and health — they are also especially vulnerable to the health effects.

According to a 2007 technical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, "children represent a particularly vulnerable group that is likely to suffer disproportionately from both direct and indirect adverse health effects of climate change." The report, "Global Climate Change and Children's Health," details how children globally are likely to suffer from more severe weather events related to a changing climate, how they will bear a disproportionate burden of the infectious and vector-borne diseases that travel easier in hotter temperatures, and why curbing climate change is a critical part of addressing childhood respiratory illness. Also highlighted is the important role pediatric health care professionals have in supporting environmental sustainability, as "over the last year or two, it's become increasingly obvious that climate change is the elephant in the room in terms of health threats for children," said Katherine Shea, MD, lead author of the academy report and an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

"We need individual change, professional change, political change — none of them alone will change the trajectory of climate change enough to prevent the catastrophic," Shea told The Nation's Health. "Because pediatricians tend to be as a group very forward-thinking and understand prevention...it seemed like a natural constituency to approach."

Shea said the academy's message has a two-part goal: to help pediatricians prepare for the guaranteed health consequences of climate change and work with public health officials to anticipate and plan for increased health complications among children. The second part, she said, is to introduce a sense of urgency and help pediatricians make the transition into climate change role models. Luckily, much of the public health preparedness infrastructure already in place is also perfect for helping communities prepare for and adapt to climate change, Shea noted. However, children's needs must always be specifically considered when preparedness and adaptation plans are being created and updated — adult-sized plans won't necessarily translate for kids.

On a global scale, Shea said, achieving better child survival rates and reaching international Millennium Development Goals on health will not be possible without working to curb climate change as well. It is clear that the poorest countries with the least capacity to respond to climate change will suffer the greatest impacts, Shea said. For example, infectious diarrhea is the second-leading cause of death among young children globally, and water-borne gastroenteritis incidence is expected to increase due to climate change.

Already, 1.2 billion people don't have access to clean water and 2.6 billion don't have access to proper sanitation, which when overlapped with climate change results in dire predictions, according to Donna Goodman, program advisor for climate change and the environment at UNICEF. Climate change is expected to make UNICEF's everyday development work even harder, Goodman said, because existing children's health problems will be compounded.

"In my opinion, it's a priority for UNICEF that children's voices need to be heard and we need to support their local actions," Goodman told The Nation's Health. "Children and young people are the experts in their local communities and it would be great if we could get their local governments to take them more seriously."

Children in the developing world will probably experience the health effects of climate change first, but "without a doubt, no child will be able to avoid the longer-term impacts over time and that's the unfortunate reality," said Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, MPH, executive director of the Children's Environmental Health Network and a past chair of APHA's Environment Section. Witherspoon and her colleagues at the network help train health care providers on environmental health issues and are working to define what the network's role should be in climate change discussions. Ideally, Witherspoon said, health care providers can become role models and champions for global climate change reduction.

"All we have to do is look at the faces of our children that are born today — those who will really be seeing the impacts of this," she said. "This isn't just something that's written about in obscure journals...this is actually something that we all have an individual responsibility in and it will impact every single one of us."

Even in the United States, though, some children may feel the impact harder than others, and those children are likely to live in low-income families and minority communities. Similar to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in times of extreme weather and disaster, it is often people in low-income communities that aren't able to pack up and evacuate — they might have nowhere to go or no money to get there, said Nia Robinson, director of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, an organization dedicated to creating just climate change policies. The initiative, Robinson said, works hard to ensure that their movement is a diverse one, so that "20 years from now we're not looking out at a upper middle-class, white room (of environmentalists)...We want to make sure there are people sitting in that room who are the ones disproportionately impacted."

Robinson said she often uses issues of health and finances to help people feel they have a stake in conversations on climate change. In fact, she said, there are times when she's talking to audiences and doesn't even mention traditional environmental images until the end of the discussion. A single mother with three children in Detroit isn't worried about polar bears and glaciers, Robinson noted, but she may be worried about being uninsured in the summer when she spends too much time in a local emergency room with her asthmatic child. That mother lives in an "absolutely polluted environment and her babies don't get the opportunity to live full and healthy childhoods because they can't breathe," she said.

"We can't start out by saying ‘I know something and you need to know it' or by talking like I know more than you do," Robinson said. "We have to listen and understand what people's needs are — that's how you craft the conversation."

For more information about climate change and youth, visit www.aap.org, http://ndys.jearn.jp or www.energyaction.net/main. For more information about this year's National Public Health Week observance, visit www.nphw.org. For more news from The Nation's Health, visit www.thenationshealth.org.

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