Yet human activity has made the world a far more dangerous place for Adriana to grow up, according to a unique study of the impact of climate change across generations.
If the planet continues to warm in its current orbit, the average 6-year-old will live about three times as many climate catastrophes as their grandparents, the study finds. They will experience twice as many wildfires, 1.7 times as many tropical cyclones, 3.4 times more river floods, 2.5 times more crop failures, and 2.3 times more droughts than someone born in 1960.
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These findings, published this week in the journal Science, are the result of a massive effort to quantify what lead author Wim Thiery calls the “intergenerational inequality” of climate change.
Using multiple climate and demographic models, Thiery and 36 colleagues compared the risks faced by previous generations with the number of extreme events today’s children will experience in their lives. Unless world leaders agree on more ambitious policies when they meet at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, this autumn, today’s children will be exposed to, on average, five times more disasters than they were 150 years ago.
The changes in the developing countries are particularly dramatic; Infants in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to experience 50 to 54 times as many heat waves as someone born in the pre-industrial era.
The differences underscore how the worst effects of climate change will be felt in places that contributed the least to warming, by people who had little influence on policies that allow continued emissions to occur, Thiery said. More than half of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were produced after 1990, which means that most of the disasters children will experience today can be linked to emissions that occurred when their parents were alive.
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“Young people are affected by the climate crisis but are unable to make decisions,” he said. “While the people who can make the change don’t face the consequences.”
Aggressive efforts to curb fossil fuel consumption and other planet-warming activities can still dramatically improve the outlook for today’s children, he added. If humans manage to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, newborns’ risk of exposure to extreme heat will fall almost in half. They could experience 11 percent fewer crop failures, 27 percent fewer droughts, and almost a third as many river floods as if emissions continued unabated.
But the 1.5 degree target is far from being reached worldwide. A UN report released earlier this month warned that greenhouse gas emissions could actually increase by 16 percent by the end of the decade, based on countries’ current climate pledges. That would put the planet on track to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
This makes Adriana angry. The first-grader from Woodbridge, Virginia, is already worried about the wildfires in California, where her half-brother lives. She’s heard of islands being swamped by rising seas and glimpsed hurricanes and droughts on the news.
Meanwhile, “adults don’t listen, and they keep doing it, making the earth hotter and hotter,” she added. “Everything just keeps getting worse and worse until I grow up. Somebody has to do something.”
The Science paper was partially inspired by Thiery’s three sons, aged 7, 5 and 2. But its implications are not limited to children. Anyone under 40, he said, is destined to live a life of unprecedented disaster and experience a frequency of extreme events that would only have a 1 in 10,000 chance in a pre-industrial world.
“It used to be a story of ‘yeah, we gotta limit global warming because of the grandkids,'” he said. “This study makes it clear that climate change has arrived. It is everywhere.”
The numbers given in the study are almost certainly an underestimate, said co-author Joeri Rogelj, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. Data limitations and the complexity of the analysis led scientists to consider the increased risk of some hazards, such as B. Coastal flooding caused by sea level rise. The study also fails to account for the increased severity of many events; it only looks at frequency.
On the other hand, countries would also have a chance to adapt to the changes ahead. When the world invests in keeping communities safe — for example, by installing flood barriers, enacting fire-safe building codes, providing shelter for people at risk from deadly heat — disasters need not be as devastating to future generations as they are to people today .
“Our aim is that this is not the end of this debate,” Rogelj said, “but that this is the beginning of looking at the lived experience of children who are born today.”
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Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology who was not involved in the new research, called it a “reliable study” based on established evidence from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a scientist, Cobb said she wasn’t surprised by the results.
But Cobb is also a mother of four. Reading the report through that lens, she said, “It sharply focuses on what so many economic models of the impacts of climate change fail to capture — the huge human toll at stake with our emissions choices this decade.” stands.”
She added, “The moral weight of this moment is almost unbearable.”
In a report released alongside Thiery’s findings, Save the Children International called on world leaders to make the changes needed to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius goal. Wealthy nations must also deliver on their unfulfilled promise to allocate $100 billion a year to help low-income countries curb their own emissions and adapt to changes already underway, the group said.
Yolande Wright, who leads the nonprofit’s climate efforts, also hopes the findings will strengthen legal efforts to enforce climate action on behalf of children. Last year, a federal appeals court dismissed a case brought by 21 American youth who argued that the government’s failure to act on climate change constituted a violation of their rights. Similar cases have been filed in Portugal, Peru and elsewhere.
“Now that we can really quantify how a child will experience so many more of these extreme events in their lifetime…it helps make the case,” Wright said.
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Environmental advocate Dan Galpern, general counsel and director of the Climate Protection and Restoration Initiative, agreed that “predictive research” like this can help establish government and corporate liability for real harm done to children.
Young people are already saying that climate change has touched their lives and damaged their mental health. In a recent poll of 16-25 year olds, scientists found that three-quarters of respondents feared the future and more than half believed they would have fewer opportunities than their parents. Almost 60 percent said their governments have betrayed them and future generations – making them even more fearful.
“The future for me and everyone who comes after is so uncertain,” said Emanuel Smari Nielsen, a 14-year-old climate activist from Norway. “When politicians and those in power do nothing, it tires me out. It almost makes me angry.”
Adriana, the 6-year-old, said she feels “super nervous” as she thinks about what the future might hold. In those moments there is nothing that makes her feel better.
“I’ll just wait until I’m done thinking,” she said.
Experts say one way to help children cope with climate anxiety is to help them feel empowered to do something about it. The Save the Children report calls on communities, countries and global institutions like the UN to give young people a greater role in shaping climate policy.
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Cormac Buck, an 8-year-old from Savannah, Georgia, has decided to stop eating meat (except for the occasional chicken nugget). He is among a group of kids at his school who have urged teachers and administrators to use less fossil fuels.
“Sometimes I hear depressing things happening, like some animals are really on the verge of extinction because of climate change… and I’m sad,” he said. “And then I usually try to find a way to prevent that from happening again.”
And adults need to win back children’s confidence, Thiery said, by making the dramatic emissions cuts that have been delayed for so long. Our choices will now determine whether children grow up in a world with four times as many heat waves or seven times as many heat waves, a world with occasional crop failures or chronic food shortages.
“We can still avoid the worst consequences,” he said. “It gives me strength as a father. … Your future is in our hands.”
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