A child born today will face multiple and lifelong dangers to their health from climate change as growing up in a warmer world risks food shortages, infectious diseases, floods and extreme heat, a major global study has found.
Climate change is already harming people’s health by increasing the number of extreme weather events and exacerbating air pollution, according to an annual study published on Thursday in The Lancet medical journal.
The study warned that if nothing is done to mitigate climate change, its impacts could burden an entire generation with disease and illness throughout their lives.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants,” said Nick Watts, who co-led The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change study.
He warned that health damage in early childhood is “persistent and pervasive”, and carries lifelong consequences.
“Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in wellbeing and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation,” he told a London briefing.
Yet introducing policies to limit emissions and cap global warming would see a different outcome, the research team said.
In that scenario, a child born today would see an end to coal use in the United Kingdom, for example, by their sixth birthday and the world reaching net-zero emissions by the time they were 31.
It will take the work of the 7.5 billion people currently alive to ensure the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate. Read the @LancetCountdown 2019 report on the state of #health & #climatechange across the 🌎 https://t.co/n58gAE6y4v #LancetClimate19
— The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change (@LancetCountdown) November 14, 2019
The Lancet study is a collaboration by 120 experts from 35 institutions including the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, University College London and China’s Tsinghua University.
On a “business-as-usual” pathway, with little action to limit climate change, it found that amid rising temperatures and extreme weather events, children would be vulnerable to malnutrition and rising food prices and the most likely to suffer from warmer waters and climates accelerating the spread of infectious diseases such as dengue fever and cholera.
Already, the number of days when conditions are ripe for the spread of the water-borne bacteria Vibrio, a major cause of debilitating diarrhoea, have doubled since 1980, with last year ranking as the second-highest on record.
Meanwhile, nine of the top 10 years where conditions were most ripe for dengue fever transmission have occurred since 2000, the report said.
Among the most immediate and long-lasting health threats from climate change is air pollution, the researchers said.
They called for urgent action to reduce outdoor and indoor pollution through the introduction of cleaner fuels and vehicles, and policies to encourage safe and active transport such as walking and cycling.
The WHO says that in 2016, seven million deaths globally were due to the effects of household and ambient air pollution. The vast majority of these were in low and middle-income countries.
“If we want to protect our children, we need to make sure the air they breathe isn’t toxic,” said Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, a global health specialist at the UK’s Sussex University who worked on the Lancet study.