A confession: Before my first kid was born 11 years ago, I didn’t really recy . . . well, let’s just say that maybe I wasn’t the world’s best recycler.
I have to be careful admitting to stuff like that around my office. But I do so, reluctantly, to make a larger point about the way having kids changes our outlook and our behavior. Once my daughter was born, the extra burden—minimal though it was—of following my city’s recycling guidelines and not contributing unnecessarily to local landfills seemed much less like a burden and more like a promise.
Regardless of what else we may believe in, we all can get behind making the world a better place for our children. The wish to see them grow and prosper in a safe, stable, and healthy environment transcends ideology or political partisanship. I’ve come to understand what all parents come to understand: Having kids really does change the way you think about the world, and especially about where we’re all headed. To take responsibility for a child’s life is to take responsibility for that child’s present—and future—environment.
A new report underscores the staggering importance of that responsibility and also provides a scorecard as to how seriously we’ve been taking it. In doing so, Children and Climate Change, which was copublished by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution (as part of their ongoing collaborative project, The Future of Children), compels us to examine what, exactly, we mean when we proclaim that “our children are worth protecting at any cost.”
Politicians are fond of saying things like that. In fact, there’s probably not a politician or policy advocate in the world—idealist or pragmatist; left, right, or center—who hasn’t cited the welfare of children (or “future generations”) as a rationale for implementing his or her agenda. Sometimes the rhetoric has merit. Other times it doesn’t.
But given this rhetoric’s undeniable power, I find it strange that children aren’t invoked more often in our climate discourse. As the report’s authors note, “Children are largely left out of discussions about appropriate responses to climate change. But they ought to be central to such debates because they—as well as future generations—have a much larger stake in the outcome than we do.”
The report leaves little doubt as to the validity of that assertion. The ways in which climate change is rewriting our physical and social realities—by amplifying global conflict, increasing the incidence of airborne disease, and exacerbating economic dislocation, just to name a few—have a markedly disproportionate impact on children, whose nascent physiological development and dependence on adults make them far more vulnerable. In fact, children under the age of five suffer more than 80 percent of the illness and mortality attributable to climate change, according to the World Health Organization. And weather-related disasters will affect as many as 175 million of these children, globally, over the next 10 years.
Thanks to the inertial lag between cause and effect in our climate systems, the sins of the parents will definitely be visited on the children. Even if we were to dramatically cut carbon emissions today, the generation after ours—and quite possibly the one after that—would still be paying the price for our past transgressions. Perversely, a variant of this same lag is what all too often gets in the way of climate action, because policy makers (and the public) are convinced that any discernible payoff is still many decades away. In the words of the report: “The fact that the costs of climate change mitigation policies need to be paid now, but the benefits will accrue in the future . . . make[s] it difficult to enact appropriate policies.”
Acknowledging the difficulty, however, doesn’t relieve us of our obligations to the next generation. Isn't it also difficult to cover your family’s health-insurance premium, or to sock money away for your kids’ college fund? Sure, but you still do these things. You absorb the difficulty today, in fact, because you’re acutely aware of the far greater difficulties your children would be facing tomorrow were you to shirk your responsibilities.
The primary takeaway from Children and Climate Change, as I read it, is that we can’t afford to gamble on our kids’—and our planet’s—future by hemming and hawing over climate action. The nations of the world have gotten together and agreed to curb emissions; that’s a necessary (and momentous) first step. But it’s not going to be enough to keep our sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, grandkids, and neighbors safe. As the authors note: “States, cities, and communities all over the world must promote preparedness and resilience.” In conjunction with long-term global achievements like the Paris climate accord, we need more short-term local achievements in the form of mitigation plans for cities and regions.
If we’re really serious about “protecting our children,” as we all claim to be, then we need to take a long, hard look at the real threats that face them, as opposed to the completely imagined ones. We can’t promise them a life entirely free of troubles and trials. But we can promise them that we won’t actively—or passively—make things harder for them. We need to make that promise. And then we need to keep it.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
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