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Children in a changing climate

Children in a changing climate

Written by Elaine Coburn, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research

Dr. Kam Sripada is a neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and currently manages the Centre for Digital Life Norway, a national biotechnology innovation centre. Dr. Sripada has studied how social and environmental factors influence child brain development and can contribute to global health inequalities. Dr. Sripada’s research, science communication and advocacy seek to strengthen international collaborations that promote healthy brain development starting in early life. Dr. Sripada’ is a member for the International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment (ISCHE), an affiliate member of the University of British Columbia’s Social Exposome Cluster, and previously Research Fellow at UNICEF. You can learn about her work here.

Speaking at the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research, Dr. Sripada explains that “children are uniquely vulnerable to climate change.” Childhood is a time of rapid brain development and growth, which means that trauma experienced during early childhood can have permanent, life-long consequences for brain development and health. Climate change creates sudden traumatic events, including flooding, heat waves and wildfires, and slower onset impacts like rising sea levels, water scarcity and the spread of vector-borne diseases. This has immediate, negative impacts families and for children, the effects may last into adulthood.

When water and food are scarce, children suffer from undernourishment. Vector-borne diseases experienced in childhood lead to worse health outcomes for these children as they grow into adulthood. There are other, less direct impacts of climate change for children. Confronted with decreased access to food and water, families may withdraw their children from schools to place them in paid employment or, for girls, into marriage. In these ways, climate change has far-reaching consequences for children, in the immediate and for the adults that they will become. Risks from climate change are compounded by early life exposures to air pollution, toxic chemicals, and other contaminants that are harmful to children’s health and brain development, said Dr. Sripada.

New actions are being taken to mitigate and to adapt to climate change in ways that protect children. Internationally, the United Nations Child Fund (UNICEF) has recently broadened its health focus to include the impact of climate change on children. Dr. Sripada co-led the creation of the new UNICEF programme, Healthy Environments for Healthy Children, which launched in 2021 and directs stronger actions by the organization to protect children from environmental threats including climate change. In addition, the new UNICEF Children’s Climate Risk Index seeks to measure the impact of climate change for children. In 2021, UNICEF estimated that one billion children worldwide are at extreme risk due to climate change, in particular through greater exposure to heat waves, cyclones, and riverine and coastal flooding. Fifty percent of victims of such “natural” disasters, caused or exacerbated by climate change, are children (Save the Children, 2007). For some, the trauma created by experiencing disaster and displacement can lead to lasting mental health problems into adulthood.

Locally, nationally and internationally, children are acting to call attention to climate change, on their own terms and in their own voices. Eric Njuguna, a climate change justice advocate from Kenya, is speaking out to challenge white saviourism and ensure that the children most immediately affected by climate change, in the Global South, have a voice and are heard. Around the world, Fridays for Futures climate change strikes by children remind both children and adults of the urgency of taking action to mitigate climate change, despite a difficult present and challenging futures. 

Dr. Sripada concludes that it is critical to engage the next generation about climate change. She observes that children are taking up the challenge, all the way up to high-level United Nations meetings, where they are demanding that governments do more to protect them and their right to healthy futures. “We are at a moment when the decisions we take to mitigate and adapt to climate change can aggravate risks, creating greater inequality,” Dr. Sripada warns, “or we can join with activists like Eric to protect children’s well-being now and into the future.”