Our Climate Choice: Thrive, or Barely Survive?
Have you ever wondered why so many hundreds of thousands of kids around the world are suddenly passionate climate advocates? The flip answer is that they looked out their windows. The more rigorous answer can be found in the 2019 Lancet Countdown, just released, which offers an annual snapshot of how climate disruption is affecting our health.
According to the report, a global collaboration between 35 leading academic institutions and United Nations agencies:
“The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”
The Lancet Countdown captures the existential terror of climate-savvy children in a series of 41 scientific indicators that are largely heading in the wrong direction.
One of the new elements in this year’s Lancet Countdown is an examination of food security. Despite my familiarity with the climate crisis, Figure 8 of the report was a shock. Globally, the crop yield potential of winter and spring wheat, soybeans, corn, and rice have fallen off a cliff since 1960. (You can explore the data in more detail yourself here, on The Lancet’s new visualization platform.) Declines in staple crops are particularly harmful to children under the age of 5, who can carry the cognitive and physical burdens of undernutrition for their entire lives.
The Lancet Countdown also finds that climate change is exposing increasing numbers of people to deadly heatwaves, unhealthy wildfire smoke, and infectious illnesses like dengue fever and diarrheal disease. In 2018, for example, the equivalent of 220 million people worldwide suffered through one heat wave each—far surpassing the previous record of 209 million heat wave exposures in 2015.
Extreme heat is rough on young children, who rely on caregivers to keep them safe from dehydration, heat-related illnesses, and even severe burns on hot playgrounds. Heat also affects children when their parents lose work hours due to heat stress: According to the U.S. policy brief for this year’s Lancet Countdown, American workers lost nearly 1.1 billion work hours due to extreme heat from 2000 to 2018. In July 2018 alone, extreme heat led to the loss of 15 to 20 percent of possible daylight work hours for construction and other heavy labor in the southern United States. Lower wages paired with the sky-high medical costs of heat-related illnesses can spell disaster for low-income families who already struggle to make ends meet.
These health impacts of climate change are showing up with just 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of average global warming since the late 1800s. Without decisive, immediate action to slash the pollution causing climate change, children born today could experience the unthinkable consequences of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) of average global warming by the time they’re in their eighties.
But here’s the thing: Even with ambitious action to cut emissions, today’s children will face a worsening array of climate-related health hazards through their lifetimes. That’s why it’s critical for governments and healthcare providers to swiftly identify local climate vulnerabilities and take preventative steps to reduce current and future harms. Thankfully, there are signs of progress. In the United States, for instance, two-thirds of 136 U.S. city governments surveyed in 2018 had a climate risk assessment completed or underway.
Humans are tough, smart, and have managed to survive as a species through all manner of disasters both natural and of our own making. But simply surviving in a dramatically-altered climate sounds … awful, at best. To thrive in our climate-disrupted world—and to help our youngest members of society reach their full potential as productive, healthy, happy adults—we need to speed down a climate-friendly path instead of dithering at our current crossroad.