The climate crisis is a child rights crisis
Children have the intrinsic right to a safe and clean environment. Yet nearly half the world's young population — nearly 1 billion children — live in countries where risks to their health and safety due to the effects of climate change are extremely high, countries where children are exposed to serious environmental hazards, shocks and stresses.
Children are not little adults; their bodies and minds are uniquely vulnerable to pollution, deadly diseases and extreme weather. Children are more likely than adults to suffer the effects of air pollution, for example, because they breathe faster, taking in more toxic air. Because infants and young children are less able to regulate their body temperatures and can more easily become dehydrated, they face higher risks to their health and well-being during a heat wave.
Children are growing up in a world made far more dangerous as a result of climate change and environmental degradation
Droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events related to climate change and global warming are multiplying in frequency and ferocity, endangering communities, creating food insecurity, threatening water supplies and forcing children to migrate — with their families or on their own.
- in the Caribbean alone, the number of children displaced by extreme weather events has increased six-fold in the past five years;
- nearly 160 million children live in zones vulnerable to high or extremely high drought
- over 500 million children live in extreme flood zones — breeding grounds to deadly waterborne diseases
- one in three children are experiencing extremely high temperatures, which are lasting longer and occurring more frequently year after year; by 2050, it is expected that nearly all the world’s children — more than 2 billion — will be exposed to heat waves, increasing certain health risks, especially for very young children and infants
- by 2040, 25 million more children will be malnourished due to climate change
As temperatures rise and seasons become more unpredictable, children are increasingly aware that though they are least responsible for the unfolding environmental crisis, they are the ones who are most threatened by its impact.
Countries across the Horn of Africa were recently hit with one of the worst climate disasters on record:
Responding to climate disasters — while building community resilience to future shocks
When a weather disaster strikes, UNICEF focuses on delivering immediate relief to affected children and families. While helping to repair damaged infrastructure and otherwise support recovery, UNICEF also helps communities 'build back better,' so that essential systems and services that children rely on — water, health, nutrition, education — can better withstand future shocks.
UNICEF works with governments to help develop and implement disaster preparedness and risk reduction plans. UNICEF also partners to advance innovations that support climate adaptation, such as solar-powered water pumps and the use of satellite imagery to map new sources of ground water.
And UNICEF also works to amplify youth voices and to advocate for more direct youth involvement in climate solutions — while helping young people identify, develop and spearhead solutions in their communities.
From eco-anxiety to eco-optimism
UNICEF understands that children and young people have a key role to play in addressing the global climate crisis. UNICEF also understands that young people are determined to be agents of change — and that they are optimistic that meaningful action is possible.
As a partner in The Green Rising initiative, UNICEF is committed to providing resources and support to help youth-led efforts succeed — and to help spark a movement.
“Children are essential actors in responding to the climate crisis," says Gautam Narasimhan, UNICEF Senior Advisor on Climate Change, Energy and Environment.
"We owe it to them to put all our efforts behind solutions we know can make a difference, such as reducing vulnerability to disasters, improving the management of water resources and ensuring that economic development does not happen at the expense of [the environment].”
UNICEF not only advocates for countries to include children in their climate-related policies and plans — it has also started monitoring and reporting on the numbers of countries that do so in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) reports, which detail how countries are working toward their commitments under the Paris Agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Responding to crises while reducing its own footprint
As UNICEF responds to emergencies around the world, it strives for efficiency and effectiveness. Carbon-neutral since 2015, UNICEF continues to look for ways to further reduce carbon emissions, water use and waste generation.
The use of drones to deliver medicine and medical supplies to remote areas has helped cut both emissions and transport time, for example. Many UNICEF country offices — including in Haiti, India, Jordan and Zimbabwe — run on solar power.
A global call to action
Scientists warn that even if the world is able to achieve specific goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is already too late to reverse some of the worst impacts of climate change.
"Our children can no longer count on the environmental and social conditions previous generations have been used to," says Paloma Escudero, UNICEF Director of Communications and Advocacy. They are being forced to grow in a world that is becoming far more dangerous and uncertain."
In collaboration with — and on behalf of — children and young people everywhere, UNICEF urges world leaders and country governments to back accelerated action to address water scarcity and other impacts of climate change.
UNICEF's call to global action is to:
- act immediately to protect children from climate devastation by adapting the critical social services they rely on, such as water, health, nutrition and education; all social services must be climate-sensitive and all climate policies and plans must be child-sensitive
- implement comprehensive climate adaptation plans — one of the most effective ways of protecting children and young people from the impacts of the climate crisis now and also critical to building resilience
- deliver on commitments to increase adaptation funding
- continue to reduce emissions and transition to renewable energy production
- revisit national climate plans and cut emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030 to keep heating to no more than 1.5°C, with G20 countries taking the lead
- provide children with climate change education, green skills training and opportunities to meaningfully participate and influence climate policy-making
- prioritize the rights of children while making decisions on adaptation
- strengthen the focus on children’s climate education and empowerment and implement previous commitments to build youth capacity
- accelerate progress on loss and damage, with the survival of vulnerable children and their communities at the center of discussions
UNICEF's Today and Tomorrow initiative created a new way to finance global efforts in climate resilience, emergency preparedness, disaster response and risk reduction work. Financing efforts are initially focused on channeling direct support to eight cyclone-prone countries: Bangladesh, Comoros, Haiti, Fiji, Madagascar, Mozambique, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
"There is an inherit injustice to this," Escudero says. "Some of the countries least responsible for the climate crisis are the ones ... facing the most frequent and damaging impacts. Children from the poorest communities face the greatest risks ..., and yet often receive the least support."
UNICEF won’t stop until every child is healthy, protected, educated and respected. This means taking climate action to secure a livable, sustainable future for all. Learn more.