Climate change harms children, particularly those in developing countries
Photo: Tim Dennell. Creative Commons. 

Climate change harms children the most, particularly the 85% in developing countries

By Child & Family Blog Editor and , | October 2019 

According to the World Health Organisation, children will suffer 80% of the illnesses, injuries and deaths attributable to climate change.

“The well-being and even survival of today’s children are at risk, ”according to a paper on the impacts of the climate crisis on children and youth from the Society for Research in Child Development.

What do children suffer?

According to the World Health Organisation, children will suffer 80% of the illnesses, injuries and deaths attributable to climate change. Children are harmed by both sudden climate change events (e.g., floods and fires) and long-term climate changes (e.g., droughts and rising sea levels). Children will experience:

  • Heat-related illness
  • Exposure to environmental toxins
  • Infectious, gastrointestinal and parasitic diseases that spread in warmer temperatures
  • Malnutrition
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (an example: after the floods in Pakistan in 2010, 73% of 10- to 19-year-olds displayed high levels of PTSD)
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Cognitive deficits and learning problems

Past research has shown that children’s reactions to extreme weather events include distress, grief, anger, loss of identity, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, higher rates of suicide, and increased aggression and violence.

All these are direct impacts of climate change. Then there are indirect impacts: food shortages, intergroup conflict, economic dislocation and forced migration. Younger children are impacted when their parents’ well-being is undermined. For example, after hurricanes, levels of domestic violence rise. Children’s education is also jeopardized; flooding and droughts are followed by declines in school attendance. Forced migration is followed by trauma and behaviour problems among children.

Things are worse for children in low- and middle-income countries

Low- and middle-income countries are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, both through their geographical position and because they have less infrastructure and capacity to respond to climate change. Eighty-five percent of the world’s children live in these regions. Climate change is described as the single biggest threat to development throughout the world, undermining the sustainable development goals set for poverty, hunger, health and well-being, education, water and sanitation, peace and justice.

How children should be supported (but are not)

The key to supporting children and young people in such circumstances is to give them agency. The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to participate in and influence decision-making processes that are relevant to their lives.

Yet this has not happened to any significant extent. There have been few adult-initiated programs to help young people respond to the threats of climate change, and little research in this area. Few resources are available to guide parents and other adults about what do to for children.

In response, perhaps unsurprisingly, young people have taken matters into their own hands. All over the world, theyhave taken action.

As just one example—other than the best known of all, Greta Thunberg—in 2018, 25 young plaintiffs won a case in the Colombian Supreme Court against deforestation in the Amazon on the grounds that it threatened their rights to a healthy environment. Millions of children are now demonstrating all over the world.

These youth activists are showing the psychological value of taking action to address the crisis – they commonly report how taking action has helped them deal with their previously debilitating anxiety, fear and anger, and has built their resilience and hopefulness as well as teaching them many life skills.

What adults must do for child development in the face of climate change

Such action by children and young people cannot absolve adults of responsibility, particularly given that if this generation of leaders fail to take effective action, it will be too late.

Those who support child development globally should focus on the 85% of children in the developing world – those most affected by climate change. However, all children will need to cope with climate change impacts, and with the massive changes involved in the shift to a zero-carbon economy.

Key skills that young people will need in the future include empathy, belief in social justice, adaptability and creativity, negotiation and conflict-resolution, collaboration, and civic engagement.

Developmental psychologists need to ensure that the climate crisis is comprehensively covered in psychology education and training. Funding bodies should prioritise research and support for children around climate change.

Finally, child development scientists should themselves become involved in advocacy and education of decision-makers, colleagues and the public about the magnitude of the threat of climate change to today’s children.

“The climate crisis represents a massive threat to our children’s well-being and survival. As such, it poses an unprecedented challenge to those with responsibility for the well-being of children and youth, and requires us to take on new roles as a matter of urgency,” the paper says.


 Sanson AV, Van Hoorn J & Burke SEL (2019), Responding to the impacts of the climate crisis on children and youth, Child Development Perspectives

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