Blog provided by Rebecca Pass Philipsborn, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Emory University School of Medicine, Emory Global Health Institute

Climate-driven environmental changes are already affecting the health of children around the world.  With their rapid physical and psychological development, children are especially vulnerable to the health impacts of the environment.  They also rely on those around them to shield them from environmental exposures.  Climate change can weaken or destroy this protective buffer that communities and caregivers provide for children, amplifying the environment’s potential impacts on our youngest.  For some children, climate-related health exposures will have lasting negative consequences on their physiology and development, health and well-being.

As an example, a child’s lungs do not develop fully until well after birth and into childhood.  The combination of warmer temperatures and pollution increases the risk of respiratory illness like asthma in children and alters lung development, significantly reducing the total volume of a child’s lung. Similarly, malnutrition in infants and young children causes physiologic changes that can prevent them from reaching their developmental potential into adulthood.  Because climate change is increasing the intensity of droughts and floods and stressing water supplies and agricultural systems, it is contributing to food insecurity and is projected to increase the incidence of malnutrition and malnutrition-related deaths.  Forced migration and displacement due to climate-related extreme weather events and environmental conflict lead to toxic stress with associated alterations in physiology that become maladaptive, affecting children for the rest of their lives.  Climate-related shifts in infectious illnesses, vector-borne diseases and emerging infections will all affect child health.

These are just a few examples of the profound repercussions of climate change on children.  In a recent Global Health Feature in the journal Pediatrics, co-author Dr. Kevin Chan and I reviewed the projected impacts of climate change on global child health.1  We urged our pediatric colleagues to represent the health interests of children in climate change discussions.  We cannot “undo” the health consequences of climate change on an individual child.  Instead, we must work to protect children from these consequences with robust adaptation efforts and, urgently, actions to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

In climate conversations, the concept of social justice is often voiced – how those who have contributed the least to global emissions face the highest risk from our changing climate.  Intergenerational justice is also applicable – generations who have not contributed to the problem at all will be left with the legacy of those who have used earth’s resources unsustainability, risking the future of our planet and its species, including our own. Beyond the tragic and preventable causes of illness and death due to climate change in an individual child, what are the cumulative costs of our failure to act on the endeavors and livelihoods of future generations of children?

Nevertheless, children manifest incredible strength and resilience.  To put it in a developmental pediatrics context, they have more brain cells than we’ll ever have again.  Children have the power to lend perspective, to ground conversations, to inspire action by adults across seemingly immense divides.   The message of projected climate-health impacts on children is clear–this is not a political discussion but a choice about the future of our planet for our children.

1 Philipsborn, R. and K. Chan. “Climate Change and Global Child Health.”  Pediatrics.  2018;141(6):e20173774.