Children carry water at the Qurdubey camp in Dollow, Somalia, where UNICEF is providing humanitarian aid to families displaced by severe drought in the Horn of Africa, one of the world's worst climate change-related disasters.
Climate Action

Earth Day 2023

While the world takes a moment to consider the health and future of Mother Earth, UNICEF reminds supporters of the urgent needs of vulnerable children and families who are already suffering the worst effects of climate change — and who need urgent help now. 

UNICEF stands with children and youth to call for urgent climate action

The theme for Earth Day 2023 is a call to action, a plea for humanity to invest in our planet for the sake of future generations. UNICEF endorses this vision as part of its response to the current climate crisis, working to meet the current and growing needs among vulnerable children and families who are suffering the impacts of climate change today, right now.

With the very first Earth Day over a half century ago, a movement was launched to save and protect the environment. And much has happened in the decades since to support of that collective mission. Yet the world's children continue to suffer significant damage from climate change and environmental degradation.

In many ways, and in many places, the level of suffering has only grown worse. UNICEF continues to stand with children and youth to call for urgent climate action. 

The origins of Earth Day

Various people deserve credit for the founding of Earth Day. Morton S. Hilbert, an environmentalist and University of Michigan professor emeritus of public health, is one.

In 1968, Hilbert and the U.S. Public Health Service organized the Human Ecology Symposium to educate students about the environmental dangers to their health. That symposium helped catalyze a campaign Hilbert and a group of students pursued over the next two years to get what became the first Earth Day off the ground. 

The Santa Barbara Oil Blowout, a massive oil spill off the coast of California in 1969, was what propelled then Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to take action. Inspired by the energy of the students anti-war movement, Nelson announced a teach-in on college campuses to the national media and enlisted Denis Hayes, a young activist, as organizer.

The date was set for April 22 to coincide with students' spring break. But once the plan was broadened to engage all Americans, the concept drew national attention and a groundswell began to form around the day. 

A girl living in a camp for families displaced by catastrophic flooding in Pakistan.
Mina, 7, rests in her tent at a settlement for displaced families in Mirpur Khas District, Sindh. Floods in Pakistan caused by record-breaking monsoon rains in 2022 affected 33 million people, displacing 8 million; UNICEF reported in March 2023 that 1.8 million people were still exposed to or living close to flooded areas, and still needed humanitarian aid. © UNICEF/UN0750070/Zaidi

Where does the name Earth Day come from?

A wide range of organizations and faith-based groups came on board and national media picked up the developing story. What had begun as a teach-in turned into a national day of protest and was renamed Earth Day.

On April 22, 1970, a remarkable 10 percent of the U.S. population (some 20 million Americans) took to the streets in hundreds of cities to protest the environmental damage that had already been done and to demand immediate action to safeguard the planet. 

And they got results: the U.S. government responded with meaningful protection measures. The Clean Air Act was passed and the Environmental Protection Agency was created that same year. The Clean Water Act followed in 1972, then the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

But as report after report from scientists have shown, the climate keeps changing — rapidly — with humans directly responsible.

Children in countries least responsible for climate change face greatest risks from the impacts

Climate shocks continue to devastate vulnerable communities and countries around the world. Severe drought in the Horn of Africa, the worst drought in decades, has created a food and malnutrition crisis impacting millions of children, while triggering waves of migration and spikes in violence. Record-breaking monsoon rains in summer 2022 flooded larges swathes of Pakistan, bringing danger and disease to millions of already vulnerable children and families. Hundreds of millions of children continue to breathe toxic air, making pollution a major contributing factor in the deaths of about 600,000 children under age 5 every year.

According to UNICEF's own global analysis, virtually every child in the world is already exposed to disruptive and damaging impacts of climate change — with about half of all children, or approximately 1 billion, living in 33 countries where climate risks are extremely high — countries with a deadly combination of high exposure to climate hazards and insufficient services to help them cope, countries that are least responsible for climate change in the first place, collectively emitting just 9 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Children and young people will inherit the impacts of climate change — impacts which threaten the life-support systems that make the world habitable. Mitigating these impacts and adapting to them will be critical. 

UNICEF's call to action on climate and children aims to spur efforts to build resilience and protect child lives and futures.

Protect, prepare, prioritize: strategies for climate action

For UNICEF, Earth Day is an opportunity to highlight the need for urgent action and renew its call for each country to work to:

  • Protect every child — making sure that critical social services children rely on — water, sanitation and hygiene, health, education, nutrition and child protection — are climate sensitive and climate resilient 
  • Prepare every child — educating children about climate change, teaching green skills and knowledge needed to reduce disaster risks and providing opportunities for children to participate in climate action 
  • Prioritize children — making sure climate adaptation and resilience building efforts are adequately funded or financed

UNICEF continues to meet emergency needs of children and families caught in climate-induced emergencies while working with partners to accelerate adaptation and mitigation measures as part of its commitment to climate action. 

"Despite the clear evidence, the calls of young people, and the newly enshrined human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, global climate action is falling far short,"UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said shortly after the release of the latest IPCC report. "World leaders continue to make inadequate promises and slow progress — on emissions reduction, climate finance, adaptation, and on strengthening community resilience.

“About 4.2 billion children are expected to be born over the next 30 years. It is our collective responsibility to make sure they are prepared. UNICEF is urging world leaders and the international community to put children and future generations at the center of urgent climate action so that we can secure a livable future for all."

A family in Mozambique who were displaced when Cyclone Freddy destroyed their home.
Image credit
After Cyclone Freddy slammed into southeastern Africa — the latest weather disaster to hit the region in recent years, UNICEF responded to support affected families. Celia Lacedo, and her three children, Calimo, 2, Susana, 3 and Santos, 5, who lost their home in the Icidua neighborhood of the city of Quelimane, Zambezia province, Mozambique. © UNICEF/UN0820832/Zuniga

What can we do for Earth Day?

To commemorate Earth Day 2023, you can make a difference by joining UNICEF USA and calling on the U.S. Government to protect children and young people from climate change by incorporating the following practices into U.S. foreign assistance programs and policies:

  • Financing and enhancing the adaptation and resilience of services children depend upon most, such as water, health, education and nutrition
  • Reducing emissions and pollution
  • Developing child-centric climate change response plans
  • Empowering children as agents of change by including them in decision-making on climate change programs and policy

Climate change undermines many basic human rights, but especially those of the world’s children. For UNICEF, there is no greater threat to children’s rights than the climate crisis.​

But children have UNICEF, working around the world to help communities and countries adapt to climate impacts and mitigate their risks — and providing emergency relief when climate disasters strike. Learn more. 

Help UNICEF protect vulnerable children and safeguard their futures. Donate today.



TOP PHOTO: Children carry water at the Qurdubey camp in Dollow, Somalia, where UNICEF is providing humanitarian aid to families displaced by severe drought in the Horn of Africa, one of the world's worst climate change-related disasters. © UNICEF/UN0742118/Condren