A common criticism of academic studies, including UN reports, is that they are very much presented from the perspective of the researchers and don’t sufficiently take into account the views of the vulnerable groups they purport to assist through research. A new United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study, however, attempts to view the problem of climate change through the eyes of a child via interviews with children and youth in five countries.
With a special focus on East Asia and the Pacific, findings in Children’s Vulnerability to Climate Change and Disaster Impacts in East Asia and the Pacific derive from four commissioned country studies: Indonesia, Kiribati and Vanuatu, Mongolia and the Philippines. This geographic focus is appropriate given that the Asia-Pacific region accounted for 88% of people affected by disasters from 1975–2008, and the results are also globally relevant given that climate change is a universal challenge.
The aim of the study is to find out if there are any “noticeable patterns and trends of climate change and disaster impacts on children”. Do children really experience climate change for themselves? Or can they only read about it in textbooks and see it on television, given their young lives? Perhaps, more importantly, do they perceive climate change differently to their parents, in a way where they are galvanized to do something about it?
Before we consider answers to these questions, it is important to look at how many children are vulnerable to climate change and why they are more so than adults.
We frequently hear the cliché that “the children of tomorrow” will be affected by climate change”. But what about the children of today? According to UNICEF, due to “climate change impacts” the number of children impacted by natural hazards has increased from an estimated 66.5 million per year before the turn of the 20th century to up to 175 million annually in the next ten years.
“Due to climate change impacts, the number of children impacted by natural hazards will increase to up to 175 million annually in the next ten years.”
The study argues that children’s particular sensitivity to climate change is, in summary, because they are “physiologically and metabolically less able than adults at adapting to heat and other climate-related exposure”. More specifically, children are “especially susceptible to air and water quality, temperature, humidity and vector-borne infections due to their less-developed physiology and immune system”.
In drawing this conclusion, UNICEF has drawn from a range of epidemiological studies that have identified correlations between temperature and precipitation changes and increased child mortality from diseases like malaria, dengue and cholera among others. For instance, health research has drawn a link between hot days and children’s hospital admissions. With modeling predicts temperature rises of 0.5–2ºC in the region by 2030, it can be expected that the pressure on health facilities can only increase.
One notable feature of the UNICEF study is its reference to the social and psychological impacts of such disasters upon children including “loss of self-confidence, nervousness and insomnia”. It would be interesting to see some follow-up research on how these issues can be addressed, not just through the usual recommendations of “increasing policy focus on X”, but through family, community and civil society support systems.
The study cites the fairly obvious point that children are more vulnerable than adults to being injured or killed during natural disasters. But there are other not-so-obvious impacts on childrens’ lives that were discovered through survey interviews, including affecting investment in their education.
For example, parents from Vanuatu and Kiribati were likely to remove their children from school to help with clean-up and rebuilding in the aftermath of extreme weather events. The challenge of molding education policies to adjust to this ever-present reality is compounded in small island states like Kiribati, where the majority of places frequented by children, including schools, are located close to the shore.
In fact, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the link between climate change and extreme weather events is stronger than ever. A new summary report by the panel (the final report is due to be finalized in March 2012) was no doubt been unveiled to coincide with the recent 17th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in South Africa.
However, as Jill Fitzsimmons of Media Matters, writing for Think Progress stresses, the major television networks in the United States have almost entirely ignored the report.
Seeing through the eyes of a child
So, what did the interviews with children and youth find?
The primary research in Indonesia, for example, found that children do have an awareness of their environment and the impact of natural disasters at least (it’s not clear, understandably, that the complex link between climate change and natural disasters is understood). It found that 20% of children surveyed from rural Indonesia had to quit school because of “crop failure associated with flooding or drought”. Urban children, on the other hand, are not as conscious of the effects of drought but did report experiences with flooding.
One Indonesian child from rural East Java was able to link climatic changes with food security and the economy as follows: “[b]ecause of the high rainfall the fertility for the corn is not good, and it means that the plants get unhealthy to the point where they die. If the corn dies, it also means that the country people will have a difficult economic situation”. (Unfortunately, there were not many more powerful and instructive quotes like these from the interviews that were included in the actual report).
In contrast to children’s experiences in Indonesia, kids in the Pacific islands of Kiribati and Vanuatu communicated their apprehensions about losing their homes due to rising sea levels, while Mongolian children noted “losing livestock to drought and harsh winters”.
“The study found conclusively that children are already reporting changes to their environment due to changes in the climatic conditions, either on the basis of their own experience or what they have learned about their environments.”
Although the country-by-country experiences of children differ according to the varied climates, overall the study found conclusively that “[c]hildren are already reporting changes to their environment due to changes in the climatic conditions, either on the basis of their own experience or what they have learned about their environments”.
While children may be too young to have experienced a change in the climate for themselves, some advocates, such as Plan International contend that children often know more about climate change impacts than their parents. Perhaps this is because some governments have mainstreamed (or at least have begun to mainstream) teaching about climate change and disaster risk reduction into schools.
The Philippines, Thailand and India are cited as examples, although the extent to which such teaching has been rolled out in school curricula is unclear. As the report points out, even if the will to educate children is there, many of these countries still lack the institutional capacity to effectively deliver such policies.
Usually, by the time one reads the conclusion of a UN report, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness and impossibility. Children, the study finds, do perceive the issue of climate change differently to their parents. Unlike adults, children are already talking about addressing climate change “with enthusiasm”. For instance, a majority of children interviewed in Indonesia expressed a willingness to do “something tangible” to help protect their communities.
Admittedly this is only a small survey in a few countries. But results like these provide a ray of hope — in this case that the adults of tomorrow will be better placed than the adults of today to tackle climate change head on. For, as the study concludes, “[h]aving developed environmental and community awareness as children, they will have gained the necessary building blocks to help protect future societies as adults”.