The climate crisis is also a children’s rights crisis: one in four children globally are already affected by the climate emergency and by 2050 virtually every child in every region will face more frequent heatwaves, according to a new Unicef report.
For hundreds of millions of children, heatwaves will also last longer and be more extreme, increasing the threat of death, disease, hunger and forced migration.
The findings come less than a fortnight before the Cop27 UN climate talks get underway in Egypt, and after a catastrophic year of extreme weather events – heatwaves, storms, floods, fires and droughts – have demonstrated the speed and magnitude of the climate breakdown facing the planet.
According to Unicef, 559 million children currently endure at least four to five dangerous heatwaves annually, but the number will quadruple to 2 billion by 2050 – even if global heating is curtailed to 1.7 degrees, currently the best-case scenario on the table.
In the worst-case scenario – a 2.4-degree rise caused by burning too many fossil fuels for too long – an estimated 94% of children will be exposed to prolonged heatwaves lasting at least 4.7 days by 2050 compared with one in four children right now. In this climate nightmare, only small areas of South America, central Africa, Oceania and Asia will escape dangerously long hot spells.
Children and infants are less able to regulate their body temperature, making them more vulnerable to the pervasive impacts of extreme and prolonged heat than adults. This includes a myriad of health problems such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases and even death.
Additionally, as intense heat exacerbates drought, it can also reduce access to food and water, which can stunt development and increase exposure to violence and conflict if families are forced to migrate. Studies have also shown that extreme heat negatively affects children’s concentration and learning abilities.
“While the full force of the climate crisis will take some time to materialise, for heatwaves it is just around the corner and looking incredibly grim,” said Nicholas Rees, the Unicef environment and climate expert.
Unicef’s report, The Coldest Year of the Rest of Their Lives, is a call to action for political leaders who continue to dither and pander to big business interests, even though the past seven years have been the hottest on record.
From the polar regions to the tropics, dangerous heatwaves are increasing in frequency, duration and magnitude, and already kill almost half a million people each year.
This year alone, heatwaves in China dried up rivers and damaged crops, while temperatures hit 48C (118F) in Pakistan before unprecedented rains left a third of the country underwater. Record-breaking temperatures throughout Europe led to tens of thousands of preventable deaths and drastically reduced crop yields, while more than 100 million Americans were under heat advisories over the summer.
The hotter the planet gets, the more catastrophic the consequences.
Unicef researchers examined the potential exposure to three heat measures – duration, severity and frequency – based on two greenhouse gas scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for climate models. They found:
Given that within three decades virtually every child will be exposed to extreme heat even under the best-case fossil fuel reduction pledges, Unicef is calling on governments to cut emissions faster and further, and help communities prepare for what is coming.
“We have to expand funding for adaptation as the impact depends on the coping capacities of families and communities … Having access to shelter, water and air conditioning will mean life or death,” Rees said.
Advocates are also urging world leaders at Cop27 to listen to young people and prioritise their needs in next month’s negotiations.
“The climate shocks of 2022 provided a strong wake-up call about the increasing danger hurtling towards us,” said Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist and Unicef goodwill ambassador. “Unless world leaders at Cop27 take action to correct the course we are on, heatwaves will become even harsher than they are already destined to be.”