Climate change impacts every child: A conversation with UNICEF’s Jeffrey O’Malley
By Flannery Winchester
Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an international call featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal.
The guest speaker for February 2016 was Jeffrey O’Malley, Director of the Division of Data, Research and Policy for UNICEF. Mr. O’Malley joined our February call to discuss UNICEF’s report, “Unless We Act Now,” about the impact of climate change on children.
Climate work is crucial to development work
With the help of NGOs and volunteers across the globe, UNICEF’s goal is to “concretely improve the lives of the world’s most disadvantaged children,” O’Malley said. And over the course of their 70 years, UNICEF has supported dramatic improvements in children’s lives, such as increases in child survival due to vaccines and immunizations, and almost universal enrollment of girls and boys in primary school.
But, O’Malley said, “We now realize we need to dramatically step up our own engagement in climate change.” UNICEF’s goals are to work for children’s rights, survival, development and protection — and without climate action, those goals slip further and further away.
Children are at higher risk than adults
In the coming years, evidence suggests that climate change will continue to bring rising temperatures and cause rainfall patterns to change. These changes will exacerbate vector-borne diseases such as malaria, Zika virus and dengue. Resource scarcity will force vulnerable families to migrate. Droughts and flooding exacerbated by climate change can damage infrastructure, disrupt water systems and contaminate water reserves.
All that is concerning enough, but these dangers are even more pronounced for the young bodies and minds of children. O’Malley explained that children are more vulnerable to vector-borne diseases. They’re also at greater risk from the physical dangers of extreme weather events, such as flooding, building collapse and more.
In addition, many of the same emissions that drive climate change also drive air pollution. “Young children breathe at twice the rate of adults,” O’Malley explained, so “their risk of respiratory infections such as pneumonia or conditions such as asthma is likely to be far higher than for adults.”
Children are already at risk today
According to the UNICEF report, O’Malley said, “Over half a billion children — already today — live in extremely high flood occurrence zones, and nearly 160 million live in high or extremely high drought severity zones.”
And very often, those areas of flood and drought overlap with areas of high poverty and low access to essential services. “This means that the children and families who are already disadvantaged by poverty, those with the fewest resources for coping, are the same children who are likely to face some of the most immediate dangers of climate change,” O’Malley said.
In this way, addressing childhood welfare means addressing climate change in an equitable way. Without climate action that’s strongly infused with a sense of justice, the poorest and most vulnerable children will be harmed first and worst. O’Malley said, “While climate change will ultimately impact every child, it’s these children who are already in harm’s way and face some of the most immediate risks.”
Climate change can and must be interrupted
If we take bold action now, we can dramatically reduce the number of children who will be threatened by climate change. The promise of a better future for our children should drive us to keep the commitment made in Paris — to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, or even 1.5 degrees.
“Your policy focusing on a carbon fee and dividend is a very promising approach.” O’Malley said. “Given the overwhelming scientific evidence on the dangers, and the clear opportunities we have for altering its course, there’s no excuse for not acting ambitiously.”
Hear O’Malley’s full remarks on our February 2016 podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @jeffomalley.