Threats to Life and Children from Climate Change

October 29, 2015

Children are “uniquely vulnerable” to climate change, according to a report and policy statement released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Climate change poses significant health dangers to the world’s children from such effects as natural disasters, heat stress, air pollution, infectious diseases, and threats to food and water – threatening children’s health, safety, and security.  Doctors worldwide have said that fossil fuels are “killing us” and quitting them is a “medical necessity.”

Continued use of fossil fuels is leading humanity to a future in which infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement, and violent conflict will all be made worse, said the physicians in their peer-reviewed report in the UK Lancet.[1]  They compared coal, oil, and gas addiction to the last generation’s effort to kick the tobacco habit.

Climate change is about the world in which our children are living today and in which they will be raising their own families. Their future is at stake, yet they do not vote and they have no voice in the debate. Parents and others committed to children’s well-being must act on their behalf.

Health and Disease

  • The World Health Organization estimates that more than 88 percent of the current disease burden linked to climate change occurs in children younger than 5, stressing that they suffer disproportionately from climate-sensitive diseases, and are exposed longer to the cumulative damage that climate change exacts. Equally important, the WHO says, they bear no responsibility for the actions that cause it.
  • Climate influences a number of infectious diseases, in addition to Lyme, that afflict children globally, including malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, Chikungunya, diarrheal illnesses, amebic meningoencephalitis (a brain infection), and coccidioidomycosis or Valley Fever.  Climate change is expected to cause an additional 48,000 deaths from diarrheal diseases in children younger than 15 by 2030, primarily in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The survival rate for mosquitoes increases by over 50% in a 2 °C warming scenario.[2]
  • Mental health: High rates of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms already are occurring in children in the aftermath of climate-related natural catastrophes, such as floods and hurricanes.


Heat Stress, Less Rain

  • Infants younger than 1 are especially susceptible to death from heat stress. One study predicts an increase in infant heat-related deaths by 5.5 percent in females and 7.8 percent in males by the end of the 21st Century.  Children and adults who work or play outdoors are at risk too.
  • Recent studies find that a pregnant woman’s exposure to reduced precipitation and an increased number of very hot days indeed results in lower birth weight. Low birth weight infants are more susceptible to illness, face a higher risk of mortality, are more likely to develop disabilities and are less likely to attain the same level of education and income as an infant born within a healthy weight range.  The results showed that an increase of hot days above 100 F during any trimester corresponds to a decrease in birth weight. In fact, just one extra day with a temperature above 100 F in the second trimester corresponded to a 0.9 g weight decrease; this result held with a larger effect when the temperature threshold was increased to 105 F.
  • Conversely, higher amounts of precipitation during any trimester resulted in larger birth weights. On average, a 10 mm increase in precipitation during a particular trimester correlated to a higher birth weights of 0.3-0.5 g. The data shows that climate change–a combination of increased hot days and decreased precipitation–correlate to lower birth weights.[3] 

Increased CO2 in Atmosphere Not Good for Plants or People

  • Elevated CO2 levels also directly and negatively affects human cognition and decision-making, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health, confirming an earlier study and 20 others.  These impacts have been observed at CO2 levels that most of those who live indoors or near roadways are routinely exposed to today inside classrooms, offices, homes, planes, and cars.  The largest effects were seen for Crisis Response, Information Usage, and Strategy, all of which are indicators of higher level cognitive function and decision-making.  CO2 “domes” form over many cities primarily due to CO2 emissions from traffic and local weather conditions.
  • There is growing concern that increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are harming the quality of grain, which lessens the protein content of wheat, rice and barley.

Safety, Drinking Water, Hunger, and More

  • A 2°C world will have at least a meter of sea level rise and perhaps considerably more, in the most populated, coastal areas.
  • Freshwater will be greatly impacted, with average annual runoff decreasing 20-40 percent in the Danube, Mississippi, Amazon and Murray Darling river basins.  Two of every five cups of freshwater in the world come from the Congo and Amazon rainforests.
  • Forest fires in the Amazon will double by 2050 with warming of 1.5°C to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.  Importantly, the risk of crossing thresholds in tipping points in the Earth system (e.g. West Antarctic ice sheet disintegration and Amazon dieback) greatly increase.[4]

We have a window of opportunity today, in 2015, to take steps that will protect our children and grandchildren from dangerous, potentially irreversible climate change. To knowingly allow this to window to close would be an unprecedented injustice to all current and future children.  We must ensure that our children grow up in healthy environments and that we care for our common home, leaving it clean and healthy for the next generation.   Shifting to cleaner, renewable energy for the health and safety – and very lives — of current and future generations isn’t just a critical pro-life issue, it’s also practical and doable.  The developing world is leap-frogging over old-fashioned fossil-fuel power in favor of renewables

  • Clean, affordable renewable energy can replace polluting fossil fuels.
  • Solar installations are doubling every two years, with developing countries installing renewable energy projects at nearly double the rate of developed nations.
  • Sustainable clean energy already makes economic sense and is helping billions of people light their homes, study longer, and cook for their families while providing cleaner air, cleaner water, and healthier kids. It also reduces or eliminates emissions and the cost of fuel.

The energy transition has begun, but we all have an obligation to ensure to ensure that it moves forward, with commitment and purpose. We are called to live life and live it abundantly!

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach…See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you…But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them,  I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long.. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life… Deuteronomy 20: 11-20

[1] Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health 2015.

[2] Dartmouth College. “Arctic mosquitoes thriving under climate change, study finds.” ScienceDaily.  15 September 2015. <>

[3] Kathryn Grace, Frank Davenport, Heidi Hanson, Christopher Funk, Shraddhanand Shukla. Linking climate change and health outcomes: Examining the relationship between temperature, precipitation and birth weight in Africa. Global Environmental Change, 2015; 35: 125 DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.06.010

[4] World Bank, The Impacts of 2 C, In “Turn Down the Heat”.  (2014)