Climate change poses an unprecedented health risk to children and is already having “persistent and pervasive” effects that will last throughout their lives, a major new study has warned.
Without drastic reductions in emissions, escalating temperature increases will burden the next generation with high levels of malnutrition, weaker immune systems and higher risk of premature death.
The projections, published in The Lancet, tracked progress across 41 key indicators and involved collaborative research by 120 experts from 35 institutions. They looked what would happen if humanity followed a business-as-usual pathway which would result in a child born today living in a world that is 4C above pre-industrial levels by their 71st birthday.
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Scientists say climate change will threaten them throughout their lives unless action is taken to limit temperature rises to well below 2C in line with global commitments.
As temperatures rise, scientists predict a reduction in yields of staple crops such as maize, rice and soybean, which will cause prices to rise and leave infants vulnerable to malnutrition, resulting in stunted growth and long-term developmental problems.
Small children are particularly vulnerable to rises in infectious diseases caused by increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.
Warmer temperatures in 2018 caused an increase in the spread of a bacteria that causes diarrhoeal diseases and wound infections. Over the past 30 years the number of climatically suitable days for Vibrio bacteria (which causes diarrhoea) to thrive have doubled.
Dengue is also on the spread. Nine of out of the 10 most hospitable years for dengue transmission have happened since 2000, with mosquitoes starting to spread across Europe and other new territories.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of a changing climate. Their bodies and immune systems are still developing, leaving them more susceptible to disease and environmental pollutants”, said Dr Nick Watts, executive director of The Lancet Countdown, which tracks connections between public health and climate change.
“The damage done in early childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime. Without immediate action from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions, gains in wellbeing and life expectancy will be compromised, and climate change will come to define the health of an entire generation.”
Fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) contributed to 20,500 premature deaths in the UK in 2016 and scientists say that the impact of air pollution will worsen in the coming decades.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to toxic air which contributes to reduced lung function, worsening asthma and an increase in the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Annual economic losses and health costs from PM2.5 in Europe could reach €129bn every year over the lifetime of the current population if pollution remains at 2016 levels.
Extreme weather is also set to intensify, with older city dwellers in Europe and eastern Mediterranean most vulnerable. In 2018, 220 million more over-65s were exposed to heatwaves compared to 2000.
“This year, the accelerating impacts of climate change have become clearer than ever”, said Professor Hugh Montgomery, co-chair of The Lancet Countdown and director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London.
“The highest recorded temperatures in western Europe and wildfires in Siberia, Queensland, and California triggered asthma, respiratory infections and heat stroke.
“Sea levels are now rising at an ever concerning rate. Our children recognise this climate emergency and demand action to protect them. We must listen, and respond,” he said.
As heatwaves continue to rise in the UK, heat-related deaths are expected to triple from 2,000 to 7,000 by 2050. Scientists say for the world to meet its climate goals, nothing short of an annual reduction of 7.4 per cent in carbon dioxide emissions until 2050 is needed.
Dr Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, called on clinical and global health communities to mobilise: “The climate crisis is one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity today, but the world has yet to see a response from governments that matches the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing the next generation.
“With the full force of the Paris Agreement due to be implemented in 2020, we can’t afford this level of disengagement.”