News

Children at the receiving end of climate change

Vanita Srivastava

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.151 Published online 14 November 2019

Unless the world limits global warming to well below 2°C as mandated by the Paris Agreement, a changing climate will mess with the health of an entire generation of the world’s children, according to a new report1.

The Lancet Countdown report, a multi-institutional collaboration spearheaded by the University College London, examined the progress on climate change and human health at a global scale. Besides independently assessing if the commitments made by national governments under the Paris Agreement have been delivered, the report compiled from research at 35 global institutions points to extensive health damage from climate change. It also points to lifelong health consequences of rising temperatures on new born children.

Nick Watts, Executive Director of report says, “The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime.” If countries don’t take immediate action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, he says, “will come to define the health of an entire generation.”

Indian trajectory

A child in the climatically vulnerable Sundarban delta of West Bengal, India.

© S. Priyadarshini

The report says as the temperature rises in India, infants will be vulnerable to the greatest burden of malnutrition and rising food prices. Children will suffer the most from the rise in infectious diseases — with climatic suitability for the cholera causing Vibrio bacteria rising by 3 per cent every year since the early 1980s. Throughout adolescence, the impact of air pollution will worsen as coal-based energy supplies grow (marked by an 11 per cent increase from 2016 to 2018). Dangerous levels of outdoor fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) contributed to over 529,500 premature deaths in 2016 — over 97,400 of these from coal. The report says extreme weather events will intensify into adulthood. The report says 22 billion additional hours of work were lost due to extreme heat since 2000 (12 billion in agriculture).

Co-author of the report Poornima Prabhakaran from the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) says the changing climate predisposes children to climate-sensitive infectious diseases such as Vibrio cholerae induced diarrhoea and mosquito-borne dengue and malaria.

The report says rising temperatures will play havoc with crop yields, skewing food and nutrition security for a population already grappling with under-nutrition. Lower availability of foods may also push people into eating more processed foods, thereby feeding into the other end of the malnutrition spectrum – overweight and obesity, and the emerging global syndemic of undernutrition, overnutrition and climate change.

Climate and the child

The authors note that the impact of climate change across the life course of every child warrants a new sense of urgency for collective action.

Atmospheric science researcher N H Ravindranath, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore concurs with the study findings.

“Children, especially in the rural areas are dependent on traditional crops. If the yield of these crops plummets, it can be detrimental to the health of these children and vulnerable people,” he says.

According to atmospheric scientist Manju Mohan at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, children, being fragile, vulnerable and low on immunity are hit the most due to climate extremes and air pollution. “Also because of climate change and prolonged periods of high temperatures, the window for mosquito breeding has gone up,” she notes.

The report recommends setting up of real-time monitoring and disease surveillance systems linked to early warning systems for vector-borne disease outbreaks. It also suggests adopting crop diversification as well as water-smart and less labour intensive agricultural operations to mitigate the impacts of climate change on food security and nutrition.

Major investments will have to be made in health system adaptation, the report urges, to ensure that health impacts of climate change do not overwhelm the capacity of emergency and health services.


References

1. Watts, N. et al. The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate. Lancet. (2019) doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)32596-6