Children are faced with a future characterised by the dramatic increase in floods, heatwaves, wildfires, pollution and more. Children across the globe have inherited a problem that is not of their making. According to a report by Save the Children, children born in 2020 will be far harder and more often hit by the climate crisis in their lifetime. A child born in 2020 will experience an average twice as many wildfires; 2.8 times the exposure to crop failures; 2.6 times as many drought events and 6.8 times more heatwaves in comparison to those born in 1960. Those who have least to contribute to climate change, coming from low- and middle-income countries, will bear the heaviest burden of these consequences.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child says that climate change is the biggest threat to children’s health and exacerbates health disparities. However, it is, paradoxically (given the recent developments in the US), rare that children are considered a relevant stakeholder when considering climate-change-related policies.
In 2019, 16 climate activists submitted a communication to the committee against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey, arguing that these countries are violating the standards set in the Convention of the Rights of the Child. They allege that the countries are:
causing and perpetuating life-threatening climate change and have failed to take necessary preventive and precautionary measures to respect, protect and fulfil the petitioners’ rights.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international human rights treaty concerning the right to protection and the economic, social, cultural and political development of all children. This came into force in 1990, with countries such as the US, the UK, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia, having not ratified the treaty. The convention establishes global standards with respect to human rights as they apply to children and requires that in all private or public undertakings by any body, the best interests of the child are a primary consideration.
In response to this, the UN Committee determined that a state can be held responsible for the impact of its carbon emissions on children’s rights within and beyond its territory. This relates to the right to life, health, and culture. Following this, children are only allowed to bring claims once they have exhausted all other channels of redress. Indeed, this has led to the rise in climate change litigation initiated by youths.
Children’s rights have been included in the preamble of the Paris Agreement, which has represented a critical step forward, however, this promise has yet to be operationalised and progress to a rights-based approach with regards to climate action is less than promising. It is imperative that children’s interests are represented in decision-making with regards to climate change. However, the role of the youth is not even established in the climate change discourse, which makes the inclusion of children in the decision-making process with regards to environmental concerns almost an impossible dream. Given the multilayered nature of climate change and the vested interests that countries bring into the table, the inclusion of children has become a last priority in the decision-making process, as well as the policies produced.
Apart from the direct consequences of the climate crisis, there are several indirect impacts leading to widened global gaps and inequalities. For instance, Dilmani, 15 years old, from Sri Lanka said:
Climate change is a huge crisis… the education of children in the affected areas gets disrupted.
There are 5 principles established by the European Council including embedding children’s rights into policy, budgetary decision making and more; equality and non-discrimination; empowering children; children’s participation in decision making; and finally, accountability to children. However, as long as these remain soft instruments of law, the current status quo will be maintained and children will have to jump through hoops to ensure their right to life and their autonomy over their future.