My daughter is not yet 2 years old. In her short life, she has only known a world dramatically altered by human-made climate change. In her lifetime, she will face a future of worse floods, heat waves, droughts, extinctions, and more calamities ensured by continually rising temperatures.
Unless we start to act now.
A new climate report released this week, called “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” makes clear that climate impacts will permeate her childhood. It also details how kids worldwide are especially vulnerable to the crisis, with even more warming on the way.
But my daughter’s future is not already doomed. That’s a key takeaway from the more than 3,000-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which outlines the many ways that society can act to not only better respond and adapt to the warming that’s here, but also stave off a perilously hot world of no return.
“There are a ton of options,” said Edward Carr of Clark University, a coauthor of the new report. The biggest tragedy, he added, would be if we don’t act now on the climate solutions we already have. “That would be the final, truly unfair thing to do to a generation of kids coming up right now.”
Born Into A Warming World
My daughter was born in the hottest year on record. Or the second-hottest year, depending on the analysis. 2020 was the year that Australia burned in its deadly Bushfire season and a record number of locusts swarmed the Horn of Africa — both calamities expected in a warming climate.
Since then, California suffered not only from its largest wildfire on record — the August Complex fire that burned 1,032,648 acres and 935 structures — but also its second-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-largest fires since at least 1932 when reliable record-keeping began, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The Pacific Northwest also experienced its deadliest heat wave on record. Tennessee was hit by record rainfall for a 24-hour period, and similar records were obliterated in the Northeast due to the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
Elsewhere in the world, mudslides blanketed Japan’s town of Atami in Shizuoka prefecture, entire villages were inundated by torrential downpours in Western Germany, and a wildfire destroyed Canada’s town of Lytton.
Some of these disasters pose real risks of physical harm to kids. Take extreme heat and heat waves: Pregnant people, babies, and young kids are all more vulnerable to heat than older kids and most adults because their bodies aren’t as good at cooling and staying that way. Studies even show that an unborn child’s exposure to extreme heat while in the womb could result in negative health outcomes later, such as lower birth weight.
For older kids, as the number of hot days increases with global warming, they risk greater exposure to the heat in schools without air conditioning and during outdoor activities, like sports.
This latest IPCC assessment also discusses how disasters, both the acute exposure to one and then the longer-term recovery from one, can damage the mental health and well-being of everyone impacted, especially kids.
After major flooding occurred in the United Kingdom in 2000, for instance, researchers tracked the health of people whose homes flooded and did not flood, according to Kristie Ebi of the University of Washington, who helped co-write the report’s chapter on health. “There was a very clear difference in probable anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder” between the different groups, she explained.
Headline-spurring disasters, which are growing more frequent and more intense, are perhaps the most obvious signs of how 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming, compared to pre-industrial times, is playing out. But there are far more climate impacts already here, as the new report exhaustively details.
Even before my daughter was born, for example, two species went extinct and climate change played a role: the Golden toad in Costa Rica in 1990, as well as Australia’s Bramble Cay melomys, a type of rodent, in 2016. And a third species got perilously close to extinction: Australia’s lemuroid ringtail possum. And there have been far more local extinctions: Climate-linked local extinctions were detected in 47% of 976 animal and plant species examined.
The impact of climate change on top of existing problems of food availability and high prices can be a “lethal combination for kids,” said Rachel Bezner Kerr of Cornell University, a coauthor on the IPCC chapter on food systems, “especially in low-income countries, especially low-income households, especially in rural areas.”
“So we have one study that showed between 1993 and 2012, increased temperatures was significantly related to children’s wasting in 30 countries in Africa,” she added. Wasting refers to a child that is too thin for their height, according to the World Health Organization.
Malnutrition is already a huge problem in kids in certain developing nations, and that problem will only get bigger in a warmer world if action isn’t specifically taken to avoid that possibility.
How Hot Will It Get In My Daughter’s Lifetime?
When world leaders signed the Paris climate agreement in 2016, they agreed to jointly limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), ideally to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Now scientists predict that it is “more likely than not” that global average temperatures will pass 1.5 degrees in the coming decades, no matter what. It could happen by 2030, when my daughter is only 10 years old.
That’s why the next few years matter so much. How quickly people cut their greenhouse gas emissions this decade will help dictate how the 1.5-degree threshold is exceeded and what happens next. Will temperatures keep going up or will they start to come back down?
Moreover, what people do now to start adapting to the warming that’s already here and locked in for the future will minimize the damage associated with the crisis.
By 2030, for example, it’s possible that countries will embrace the bold goal of protecting at least 30% of the planet’s land and water. If so, that could have cascading benefits, from keeping some species alive to bolstering natural ecosystems that protect against floods, help suck up carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and do much more. And if China transitioned to a half-decarbonized power supply for homes and vehicles by 2030, per the report, the country could expect to prevent 55,000-69,000 deaths in that year.
It’s also possible that urban areas may see their exposure to flooding go up 2.7 times by 2030 compared to 2000, or that an additional 48,000 children under the age of 15 globally may die from diarrhea, or that the number of people living in extreme poverty may increase by 122 million, or that extreme droughts in the Amazon will accelerate the migration of traditional communities and Indigenous peoples to cities, or that freshwater will be severely limited for some small islands.
By 2040, when my daughter is 20, the glacier on Africa’s tallest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, may be gone.
But meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement across nine major economies by 2040, per the report, “could result in an annual reduction of 1.18 million air pollution–related deaths, 5.86 million diet–related deaths, and 1.15 million deaths due to physical inactivity.”
By 2050, when my daughter is 30, millions of people could be at risk of hunger. In a world that never gets up to 2 degrees Celsius, 8 million people could face this risk. In a world that reaches 2 degrees by then, 80 million people could.
On the flip side, if the European Union specifically were to dramatically cut its greenhouse gas emissions, that action “could reduce years of lost life due to fine particulate matter from over 4.6 million in 2005 to 1 million in 2050,” per the report.
By 2100, when my daughter is 80 years old, temperatures could have leveled out at 1.5 degrees or even dropped a bit — or gone all the way up to 4 degrees. The difference in climate impacts and livability between such scenarios is near-Biblical.
Even in a world that hovers around 1.5 degrees of warming, global seas may rise between less than a foot to nearly two feet by then. At the same time, the benefits of cutting climate emissions, such as phasing out fossil fuel–run power plants, will be enormous for people’s health and their wallets. “The financial value of health benefits from improved air quality alone is projected to be greater than the costs of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement,” according to the report.
“We need to be mitigating for our health,” Ebi said. Phasing out coal-fired power plants, for example, both cuts down on climate pollution and could result in fewer hospitalizations and deaths tied to particulate matter, she said. Or eating less red meat would not only cut down on associated emissions from methane, a greenhouse gas, but also cut down on chronic diseases and avoid some premature deaths and hospitalizations.
In that very hot scenario, meanwhile, sea levels will rise by at least 2 feet, if not 3 feet, by 2100. Wildfires will be far more prevalent, with up to 720 million people living in fire-prone areas. Flood risk will be higher. Farms, fisheries, and ranches will be highly stressed. Extinctions will happen. And up to three-quarters of the human population, per the report, “could be exposed to periods of life-threatening climatic conditions arising from coupled impacts of extreme heat and humidity by 2100.” That’s billions of people having their lives threatened by droughts, heat waves, floods, and other disasters promised by climate change.
The kids of today are the ones who will be here in the decades to come. “And so all these impacts we’ve been talking about,” Carr said, “they’re going to see how these all play out.”