By Fatima Arkin
[MANILA] Climate change is already damaging the health of the world’s children and threatens a lifelong impact unless countries meet the Paris Agreement targets to limit warming to well below 2˚C, according to a new study published in The Lancet.
The study, which involves 35 global institutions, notes that children are more likely to develop respiratory diseases or asthma due to fine particulate air pollution that is principally driven by fossil fuels and “exacerbated by climate change”.
Children are also more likely to die of diarrhoeal disease due to the lack of clean drinking water — a common effect of dry spells and droughts that are increasing in frequency and magnitude due to climate change. And those in low- and middle-income countries are the worst affected.
“Children are more vulnerable to air pollution and other environmental stress as their bodies are still growing, including their lungs, brain, immune and nervous systems,”
Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, senior researcher, UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS)
Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, a senior researcher at the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and co-author of the report, told SciDev.Net: “Children are more vulnerable to air pollution and other environmental stress as their bodies are still growing, including their lungs, brain, immune and nervous systems.”
Infants under one year old are particularly vulnerable to electrolyte disturbances and the other health effects of heat. And, as temperatures rise, infants will also be the most vulnerable to malnutrition and rising food prices, notes the Lancet Countdown 2019 report on health and climate change, published on 14 November.
The average global yield potential of all major crops, such as rice and maize, has already been on a downward trend over the past 30 years, threatening food production and food security.
“In many countries, women and children eat last in the households, and when less food is available, they may eat less so that the financial provider in the household — often men — can eat more,” explained Ayeb-Karlsson.
Children will be among the hardest hit by the rise in infectious diseases, such as dengue and diarrhoeal disease. Nine of the 10 most climate-suitable years for transmission of dengue have occurred since 2000, according to the report.
The number of days suitable for Vibrio, a pathogen responsible for part of the burden of diarrhoeal disease, has doubled since the early 1980s while global suitability for coastal Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera, has increased by almost 10 per cent.
Nick Watts, executive director of the Lancet Countdown, said the damage done in early childhood by environmental pollutants and disease would have “health consequences lasting for a lifetime”.
National leaders are increasingly drawing attention to the link between health and climate change at the United Nations level, a push being led by the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), including Fiji, Palau, Samoa and Dominica.
Karen McNamara, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia who specialises in climate change and wellbeing in the Pacific SIDS, told SciDev.Net: “This focus on health for SIDS is due to their susceptibility to a range of climate-related hazards — exacerbated by climate change — such as cyclones and storm surges.
“These extreme weather events have a significant impact on people’s physical, mental and emotional health, as well as crucial public health infrastructure that is often situated in coastal areas.”
Cities and health systems are becoming more resilient to the effects of climate change, according to the report. It says roughly 50 per cent of countries and 69 per cent of cities surveyed worldwide reported efforts to conduct national health adaptation plans or climate change risk assessments.
Spending to adapt health services to climatic changes has also increased by almost 12 per cent globally over the past year.
However, current progress is “inadequate”, according to the report, which says its findings suggest “a world struggling to cope with warming that is occurring faster than governments are able, or willing to respond”.
It goes on to cite the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is one of the financial mechanisms of the Paris Agreement and the world’s largest international climate fund, as a missed opportunity. The GCF is notably yet to receive projects specifically focused on improving climate-related public health.
Johannah Wegerdt, a health and wellbeing specialist at the GCF, said the fund was working to raise awareness of “the critical link between climate change and health”.
“In particular, mitigation projects designed to avoid greenhouse gases could also offer significant health benefits to communities in developing countries and GCF is committed to facilitating the development and adoption of such projects,” she told SciDev.Net.
Authors of the report are calling for the health impact of climate change to be at the forefront of the agenda at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid next month.
Ayeb-Karlsson believes more focus is needed on enabling health systems and services to handle the impact of increasing climate-related disasters.
“Making sure that our health systems are prepared and that our health services can respond more effectively and timelier to disasters and health emergencies is one way of preparing for the effects of climate change impacts that will help save people’s lives and improve their wellbeing,” she said.