Why childrens’ climate concerns should inspire politicians

By Jasmin Burgess

Following his inauguration speech in January, Barack Obama was widely congratulated for putting climate change central to his second term.

What was however overlooked in the reporting of Obama’s speech was the way in which he framed his desire to act on climate change- for the sake of children and future generations, stating specifically, “we will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”.

This was a shrewd move by the Obama administration. Not only is it more politically palatable to frame action on climate change in the context of our children and grandchildren, but more importantly it highlights a central tenet of climate change – more than anyone, it will fundamentally affect children today, their future as adults and future generations.

In fact children will bear the brunt of the economic, environmental and social impacts of a lack of action on climate change, despite being the least responsible for its causes. The Stern Review estimates that unchecked climate change could cost 5% of global GDP- it will be children and future generations who will bear the burden of this cost.


Last week UNICEF UK released polling data that focused specifically on some of these issues and that went one step further, beyond just theoretical concepts of the intergenerational aspects of climate change.

Our data showed that children in the UK are in fact themselves acutely aware of the effect that climate change will have on their futures and are overwhelmingly concerned by the prospect. 74% of children aged 11-16 stated that they are worried about how climate change will affect their future and an identical percentage believe the world will have changed as a result of climate change by the time they are adults.

Young people such as Eshita, a 14 year old who campaigns with UNICEF UK has underscored this point, stating that “Unless we take action, I fear that by the time I reach thirty, the problems we are faced with now will seem minute in comparison to those we will be facing”.

Increased severe flood events are having a big impact on children in developing nations (Source: © 2011 Gary Braasch)

The polling also showed nearly two-thirds (63%) of children in the UK are worried about how climate change will affect children and families in other countries.

We know that children in the poorest countries are the most vulnerable to climate change, and it is interesting to see that children, not just in these countries, but in developed countries such as the UK are also concerned by this.

There are roughly 756 million children currently living in the top ten most vulnerable countries to climate change and the Stern Review highlighted that if climate change goes unchecked it could cause an additional 60,000 to 250,000 child deaths in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Unsurprisingly, children in these countries deeply affected by climate change are also acutely concerned by the impacts that it will have on their future and their peers.

“The region that I live in was flooded for 3 months… I worried about the children. They didn’t have food and they were leaving their homes. I worried about the health of the children because they became ill. It affected me a lot,” said Darwin, 17 from Bolivia when interviewed.

Laurine, 15, from Kenya also expressed similar concern: “With the shortage of food in my area the food becomes very expensive and sometimes I fail to go to school because the money that is at home can only be used to buy food. So it’s either use the money to buy food or use the money for school.

He continues: “I think the politicians should come to an agreement and the developing countries and the developed countries should come together and find a way to help children who are suffering in these developing countries”.

That young people are very aware of climate change and the impact that it will have on their future gives a new weight to the arguments that have long been made about the need to consider intergenerational justice and the impacts on children and future generations in climate change action.

Children want action

Not only are children concerned about climate change, but they are also keen for the government to take action. 72% of UK children agreed that they want the Government to do more to tackle climate change to protect their future and that of their peers.

In developing countries, there is similar desire for governments to do more – as Khadidiatou, 17, from Senegal highlights: “I want governments to establish an agreement between the rich and the poor, to make the adaptation better in the African countries. You need to listen to the voice of the children!”

The decisions being made on climate change today will shape the future of today’s children and future generations, and our research shows that they are fundamentally aware of this and deeply concerned.

This should spur a new sense of urgency and ambition in climate change policy making both at national level through climate change legislation and international level through channels such as UNFCCC.

It is the responsibility of the decision makers today to ensure that we can build a climate change regime that will ensure that climate change does not prevent children everywhere to fulfill their potential now and far into the future.

Jazmin Burgess is UNICEF UK’s Climate Change Policy and Research Officer, working on building the case for action to protect children from climate change. UNICEF UK will release a full report later this year on the young people’s perceptions of climate change and the case for action.

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