Natural Disasters: Young People Take on the Climate Change Factor

October 3, 2017

Climate change doesn't cause hurricanes, floods or droughts, but it does exacerbate them. The link between the environment and humanitarian emergencies — and how young people are going to court to address the increasing risks to children who are already vulnerable.

In terms of extreme weather events, the summer of 2017 will certainly be remembered as one of the worst — and one of the most dangerous for children.

In the West, first Harvey hit. Then Irma, Jose, Katia and Maria — a string of nasty hurricanes that devastated communities across the Caribbean, wreaked havoc in parts of the U.S. and Central America and affected millions of lives. As the storms raged, forests in the U.S., Canada, South America, Russia and across Europe burned. In the East, torrential monsoon rains caused massive flooding in three countries in South Asia, leaving nearly 16 million children and their families in crisis.

Nine-year-old Tiquani stands in a damaged classroom at Adrian T. Hazell Primary School located in the South Hill District on the island of Anguilla. Hurricane Irma left 12 of the school’s 15 classrooms unusable and delayed the start of the school year for 325 students. UNICEF is working to set up child-friendly learning spaces so that kids can resume their education while their schools are being rehabilitated.© UNICEF/UN0120820/English

As debate over the cause of extreme weather drags on, children, fearing for their futures, are taking legal action to force adults to address what they believe is the cause: climate change.

Here in the U.S. 21 young people who won the right to have their pioneering lawsuit against the U.S. government on global warming heard in court are fighting for the right to go to trial. Just last week the U.S. Government urged a lower court to put a stop to the climate change suit, which accuses the government of endangering people by encouraging fossil fuel development.

In Portugal, meanwhile, six school children from Leiria, a region where forest fires resulted in 64 deaths in June, are moving ahead with a crowd-funded legal suit in the European Court of Human rights, demanding that nations cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep their fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

What’s fueling these David and Goliath – esque efforts to force the world’s courts to take action? Young people see their peers around the world paying the price for past generations’ inaction — and believe that it's up to them to help.

Young people see their peers paying the price for past generations' mistakes and believe it's up to them to help. 

Children contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions and other causes, yet, as UNICEF points out in many of its reports on the subject, the youngest members of the poorest and most marginalized populations are the ones most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. "Climate change both feeds on and accentuates inequality," UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake says. In Thirsting for a Future, which looks at the dangers and potential solutions, Lake writes: "We can and must take collective action to address these threats."

Around the world today, UNICEF and its partners are doing just that, as they continue to conduct large-scale emergency relief efforts in Barbuda, Bangladesh and dozens of other places. Meanwhile consensus is growing that climate change deserves some of the blame.

The results of a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Sept. 28 show that more Americans are convinced that global climate change contributed to the severity of recent hurricanes in Florida and Texas — a major shift from popular opinion post-Hurricane Katrina, when most people said they believed severe weather events "just happen from time to time." 

In the case of a really bad storm, climate change can make it totally disastrous. 

The science backs them up. Sean Sublette, a meteorologist with Climate Central, a nonprofit group that studies climate change, recently told CNN that while climate change isn't the "proximate cause" of a storm, "it does make these bad storms worse. And in the case of a really bad storm," Sublette said, "climate change can make it totally disastrous or catastrophic."

Two girls from Nepal's Saptari District use plastic sheets as a makeshift rain cover. Nepal has suffered the effects of an extraordinarily intense monsoon season. © UNICEF/UN076160/Shrestha

Environmental scientists are saying get used to it. And it's not just more frequent, more intense hurricanes that we need to worry about. Shrinking glaciers, warmer oceans, rising sea levels, longer and hotter heat waves and prolonged drought are all part of the frightening new normal that scientists say is not at all unexpected. 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a coalition of experts considered to be an international authority on climate change and its impacts, recent events match what scientists had predicted would happen based on a comprehensive review of all available research. And what's more, the IPCC notes on its website, "the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs from climate change are likely to be significant and increase over time."

Hurricane Irma left thousands of homes and farms in Haiti covered in mud, and damaged roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. UNICEF is working to provide safe drinking water and sanitation in affected communities as well as child protection services.© UNICEF/UN0120004/Bradley

Meanwhile, millions across the globe — including millions of children — are already paying the price. In the 2017 report The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, UNICEF cites "climate-related shocks" as one of the main reasons more people were hungry and malnourished in 2016 than in previous years — 38 million more, for a total of 815 million, or 11% of the world's population. Drought caused by the weather phenomenon known as El Niño is a major culprit, contributing to widespread food insecurity in countries like Somalia and Ethiopia by depriving communities of clean, safe water to drink and sufficient water resources needed to grow food.

Women and children wait their turn to fill jerry cans at a water distribution point in the Oromia region of central Ethiopia, where an ongoing drought has severely limited access to clean water and is endangering the health and safety of children. Children spend much of their day searching for the resource.© UNICEF/UN011590/Ayene

The kind of severe flooding that overwhelmed parts of Nepal, India and Bangladesh earlier this summer poses a different kind of threat to children's health and well-being. Floods wash away sanitation systems and contaminate the water supply, bringing cholera and other killer diseases. Floods force schools to close and families to relocate, disrupting kids' educations.

A mother cradles her son who is being treated for malnourishment through a UNICEF-supported program in Baidoa, Somalia. It is estimated that by the end of 2017, close to one million children under five will be malnourished in the country, including 185,000 with severe cases, numbers that will increase if famine is not averted. Severely malnourished children are nine times more likely to die of killer diseases like cholera and measles, which are spreading.© UNICEF/UN061095/Knowles-Coursin

UNICEF leaders have long advocated for the international community to band together to address the effects of climate change and reduce the risks for children. Thirsting for a Future, published in March 2017, makes several recommentions, including: Invest in good analysis and and apply robust technical standards to the design of water and sanitation systems, to make them more resilient to extreme weather events. Help communities diversify their water sources, and increase capacity for safe water storage. Assist governments in developing policies that plan for — and enable high-risk populations to adapt to — changes in water supply and demand.

In Bangladesh, for example, UNICEF worked with local partners and the government to pilot a promising new system for storing freshwater underground. In Vanuatu, recovery efforts following the 2015 Cyclone Pam included replacing damaged infrastructure with more resilient water systems — part of UNICEF's "build back better" approach. (For more case studies, read the full report.)

Ten-year-old Desre from Barbuda holds a bag containing pink and green skipping ropes, learning materials and other items she received from UNICEF at a distribution center on St. John's, Antigua. The facility is sheltering thousands of children and their families who fled Hurricane Irma, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Altantic. © UNICEF/UN0121371/Moreno Gonzalez

While it continues to seek collaborative solutions, UNICEF remains among the first to respond when natural disasters strike. UNICEF is currently on the ground providing supplies and services to children and families affected by Hurricane Irma in Antigua, Turks and Caicos Islands, Haiti and elsewhere. Priorities include providing safe drinking water, health care and psychosocial support, and restoring education through school rehabilitation and child-friendly centers. UNICEF USA is mobilizing to get essential supplies to the children of Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria.

Support UNICEF's emergency relief efforts to help children and families in the wake of this summer's storms. Your contribution can make a difference.

Donate Now

Top photo: Children steer a boat made from a banana tree toward a flood shelter in Kurigram District, Rangpur Division, Northern Bangladesh. Twenty districts in the country were affected by extraordinarily intense monsoon rains that left 3,9 million people in need of food, clean water and shelter, and at least 1,000 schools closed. © UNICEF/UN076394/Saeed