The Face of Climate Change: Our Children’s Health

BY ON July 17, 2013

A child's face painted with the world

As greenhouse gas emissions warm the planet, scientists predict that we will see alterations in many of the foundations of human society, from our food supply to global security concerns. Our health is already suffering from the effects of climate change, and those who bear the brunt of the suffering are children.

Will children be the face of the global impact of climate change? Will their health be the collateral damage of our fossil fuel civilization?

Researchers have estimated that in 2000, climate change was already responsible for more than 150,000 deaths per year, with 88% of those among children. This is as estimate for what was happening 13 years ago. And we keep pumping carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Some of the documented health effects (i.e., happening now) of climate change on children include:

  • Change in the ranges of malaria and Dengue
  • Increases in diarrheal disease, respiratory disease, injury and death from extreme weather events
  • Increases in poverty, food insecurity and instability, and resulting malnutrition and starvation
  • Heat-related health effects, including diminished school performance, pregnancy complications, and renal effects

Scientists predict climate change will continue to disproportionately harm children’s health in the future:

Infectious disease: leading cause of childhood death. Despite some recent improvements in global child health, childhood mortality remains stunningly high worldwide – 8 million children under the age of 5 perish each year, and most of them die from infectious diseases such as pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea. Global warming is predicted to increase the spread of at least two of these infectious killers — indeed, many scientists think such effects are already happening.

  • Mosquito-borne diseases. Malaria transmission may increase in a warming world as mosquitos survive at higher latitudes, in broader regions, and for longer seasons. The disease hits children the hardest. Globally, malaria is the third biggest killer of children, affecting mostly children in Africa. Mosquitos also transmit Dengue fever, West Nile virus, and other dangerous viruses. As temperature rises, Dengue virus replication increases inside the mosquito. This means that a warming climate could increase the ability of mosquitos to transmit Dengue fever.
  • The incidence of water-related diseases such as cholera and cryptosporidiosis is closely related to water conditions and climate. In times of drought, water scarcity may force families to use contaminated water sources for drinking, cooking, and bathing, leading to increases in water-borne disease. In times of heavy rains and floods, sewer lines may be overwhelmed, leading to contamination of drinking water supplies. Climate change is predicted to increase both droughts and floods, depending on the region. With these conditions we will also see more water-borne diseases. Again, children are especially vulnerable to the health effects of diarrheal disease. Worldwide, diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of death among children younger than 5; it is also a leading cause of malnutrition among children.

Ground level ozone harms little lungs. In a warming world, respiratory disease will increase. Children will experience more irritated eyes, throats, and lungs. More asthma attacks. Impaired lung development. Increased respiratory illnesses. New cases of asthma. That’s because of predicted increases in the production of ground-level ozone, a powerful respiratory irritant. Ground-level ozone will be on the rise globally as temperatures increase, due to the chemical process that creates ozone in our atmosphere. Increased pollen counts and smoke from wildfires – both of which are predicted to rise in a warming world – will also contribute to ozone formation. Ozone is a lung irritant for all breathers, but children are especially vulnerable to its health effects.

Gee, it’s hot in here. As global temperatures rise, heat waves will be stronger and last longer. Data from NASA shows that’s already happening. Heat waves can cause heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and they also make other illnesses worse. Children, pregnant women, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to heat because their bodies are not as good at regulating internal temperatures. Heat makes them sicker, sooner, than otherwise healthy adults.

Health impacts from climate change are not in some far off future. They are happening now. Our children are already collateral damage, and will continue to suffer the health consequences – until we limit carbon emissions from power plants, end fossil fuel subsidies, and transition to an alternative energy economy. Join us!


TOPICS: Asthma, Children's Health, Climate Change, Heat and Extreme Weather

  • Great piece Molly !

  • Ernest Grolimund

    Good article. But climate change is also caused by mans destroying the best sequestration system we have for CO2: our trees and forests. Gore quotes authorities saying 40% of the CO2 comes from deforestation and the cutting and burning of trees. He writes that cutting and burning wood leading to deforestsation is doubly bad for warming. So I figure the percentage of warming from deforestation is about 80/140 or about 60% more or less. On top of deforestation, there is the burning of wood for heat. Even in the USA, this amounts for about 25% of our home heating. Then there is industrial and commercial biomass burning. Perhaps 20% of our total fuel burning comes from biomass. That would mean that about 70% of our climate change effects come from wood burning and the associated loss of our tree sequestering system. So why are many groups focusing on just CO2 and fossil fuels and large sources?
    EDF is right to point out the problems with wood cook stoves in the 3rd world. It is also right to point out that 88% of our U.S. certified stoves are creating unhealthy and illegal amounts of pollution with the Am Lung Assn joining them.
    Do not lose sight of the fact that carbon black soot is a worse climate forcer as the Presidents plan shows and a typ American wood stove creates 500 times more soot than an oil furnace. Also, please keep telling people that wood burning is not carbon neutral as the EPA has said and EDF acknowledges.
    The real solution to our climate crisis is to conserve energy and to stop all burning, stop the use of all fuels for energy. Hydro, wind, geothermal, insulation, weatherization, passive solar, active solar, photovoltaics and other truly clean energy sources need to be emphasized as EDF is doing.
    God is watching us. God is testing us. Do we care for the earth and our neighbours or money?