This article is written by Cecile Pilot.
Early September, President Obama depicted a stark future without climate action. During the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic, he urged representatives of more than 20 countries to accelerate concrete commitments to avoid harsh consequences for future generations. He said that if we do not fix the issue of climate change soon, children around the world would be « condemned to a planet beyond repair ».
The message was powerful but we can wonder if it will resonate strongly in the minds and hearts of global leaders. Today, the most powerful governments of the world take all decisions on global climate politics and big businesses have some influence too. As we live in a world where over 50% of the global population is under 30 years old, it is clear that, children and youth views should be taken seriously.
Children and youth are not just a special interest group. They are the principal recipients of the climate change negotiations’ outcome. The COP21 currently held in Paris aims, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C. While human existence is not negotiable, the failure of this COP could waste our future and the one of our children.
According to a Native American proverb, « we do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children ». The lifestyles and decisions being made today, and in the past, have surely had consequences in an inalterable way for generations to come. Climate justice deserves to be understood in a broader dimension because the impacts of global warming go beyond the geographic and economic scales. In fact, it has a dimension of time across generations. If it is legitimate to say climate justice is owed to poorer countries that suffer the most severe climate damages, it is also true that we will owe justice to our children and grandchildren. They have already a claim to climate justice within their countries firmly rooted in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) which is law in 193 nations. Indeed the UN CRC was ratified by almost all the same countries that ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), giving them international obligations to fulfill.
For instance, Article 24 of the UN CRC states that « every child has the right to nutritious food, clean drinking water, and a healthy and clean environment » ; and Article 12 states that « children’s views must be respected and they have the right to participate in decisions affecting their lives ». The right to participate in decision-making is a fundamental human right. By taking action, participating, raising awareness, and making their voices heard, children and youth can help to fight against the dangers of climate change. With such a demographic weigh, their impact can be huge and benefit to the society as a whole.
For every year of the coming decade, « natural disasters will affect 175 million children, increasing the risks to their health, education, protection, and lifelong opportunities » according to Save the Children. Likewise, the 2012 Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimated that, by 2030, economic losses from floods, storms and landslides would reach $194 billion per year. Therefore, about 85% of economic costs will fall on developing countries, where generally, children and youth under 25 make up at least half of the population.
21st century’s children are already enduring the most of climate change effects. Children’s bodies and minds are still at a developing stage and they are more vulnerable than adults to consequences of environmental stressors. At an early age in their lives, some children face increased extreme weather events: more severe heat, flash floods, drought, environmental disasters and rising seas. These events have a physiological and mental cost slowing down or halting human development. They also fail crops and expose some children to the harm from malnutrition. In 2012, globally, nearly half of all deaths of children under five years old were attributed to undernutrition. On a global scale, a study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that by 2050, there would be 20% more malnourished children than would be the case without climate change.
As the leading scientist body IPCC states in its documents, consequences of climate change also include ocean acidification, air pollution and limited access to clean drinking water. Diarrhea is but one water-related risk to children’s survival. In fact, climate change is affecting the main principles of the UN CRC: the right to survival and development; the right to participation; accountability and the rule of law; the right to equality and non-discrimination; and the over-arching principle of the best interests of the child.
Climate change has also very perverse impacts that we do not think directly about. When floods or typhoons destroy schools, access to education is not ensured anymore. Research in developing or less developed countries in South East Asia, Africa or Latin America has revealed significant declines in school attendance, especially of girls, after floods or during droughts. When a disaster strikes, children face higher risks of family separation, and sometimes worse, of exploitation, sexual abuse or trafficking.
The UN CRC also stipulates that children have a right to be heard and to participate in decisions affecting them. Despite this legal obligation, children’s voices are rarely heard, and their concerns are almost invisible in climate policy debates, unless it is echoed by civil society.
The 1992 UNFCCC does not refer to children, even if it urges to preserve the global climate for present and future generations. When you have a look at the UNFCCC guidelines for National Communications, in which States Parties report on the measures they are taking to implement the terms of the Convention, not surprisingly, you will observe they are completely silent on reporting aspects that disproportionately affect children. At the national level, funds are allocated to repair the damaged infrastructures, schools and hospitals, but fulfilling child rights appears not to be among the top priorities. By neglecting to direct what little climate finance they do receive to programs and projects benefiting and involving children, governments are failing in their UN CRC obligation to protect and fulfill child rights « to the maximum extent of available resources ».
Despite efforts made in earlier COPs by civil society, the current negotiating text makes no mention of children and youth. These negotiations cannot offer a successful outcome if their voices are not taken into account. World leaders should never forget children and youth have a unique ability to perceive risks that are particular to their age and context, and are able to propose child-friendly ways to overcome them. We need to invest and support children and youth in the development of creative solutions. As their world is transforming in an irrevocable way because of climate change, this is both a fundamental right and a vital need.
About the author: Cecile Pilot is a negotiation tracker and COP in MyCity member. Born in France and currently student in Human Rights Law, she is interested in advocacy for minorities bearing the devastating brunt of conflicts and climate disasters. In 2013, she was living in Japan. In the aftermath of the Fukushima catastrophe, the great resilience of communities was an inspiration that convinced her that change can start from successful grassroot actions.