Children’s Health Hit Hardest by Climate Change – but Cleaner Air, Greener Cities and Healthier Foods Can Create Cascade of Benefits
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, mother of 11-year Ella, whose 2013 death from severe asthma was the first to be recognized by a court as caused by air pollution.

Greening cities, investing in urban bike lanes rather than new roads, and making plant-based foods cheaper and easier to access than ultra-processed foods. This is a doctor’s prescription for a healthier planet. 

As climate negotiators at Glasgow’s COP26 conference remain locked in debate over the big-picture ambition of targets for global CO2 emissions reductions, and how to finance them, health advocates are trying to raise the profile of climate policies that would yield far-reaching knock-on benefits to the health of almost everyone on earth – but particularly for children, women and people living in some the poorest nations of the world. 

“We have sacrificed children all around the world to air pollution,” said Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, noting that some 500,000 children a year die from air pollution. Kissi-Debrah was speaking at the COP26 “Triple Win Scenario” event on Friday, co-sponsored by the WHO and the World Resources Institute.

Kissi-Debrah’s 11-year-old girl daughter, Ella, was one of those victims. But her death from severe asthma in 2013 set a precedent: it was the first to be recognised by a court anywhere in the world as air-pollution induced.  

Like many Londoners, and many more urban dwellers in low- and middle-income cities around the world, Ella had lived in a heavily trafficked and heavily polluted neighbourhood. 

Shifting travel to greener modes, greening cities with more trees and making cities more walkable are among the climate strategies that health forces are advocating, and could all make a difference to the next generation. 

“Be serious, stop burning fossil fuels because those fossil fuels go into the air and into my lungs and yours. When you think about the planet, think about a couple of little, pink lungs,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Climate & Environment, at the event. 

She noted that some 90% of the world’s population is exposed to unhealthy air pollution levels, leading to seven million deaths a year. 

Children among those worst affected

The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have created a perfect storm for increased malnutrition, child wasting and stunting, and maternal anaemia in parts of Africa.

The fact that children are among those worst affected by climate change is underscored by a new review of the knowledge about climate change on child health, published by the Lancet on Sunday.

“Present and future generations of children bear and will continue to bear an unacceptably high disease burden from climate change,” states the review’s authors, a group of Swedish experts from the Karolinksa Institute and elsewhere.

“Through its far-reaching impact on all parts of society, climate change will challenge the very essence of children’s rights to survival, good health, wellbeing, education, and nutrition as enshrined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and emphasised in the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” they note.

“Climate change threatens to exaggerate the vulnerabilities of children and other populations at risk and could substantially hamper future progress and possibly even reverse the improvements made in child survival and wellbeing during recent decades,” concludes the review, suggesting that climate change needs to be better integrated into the SDG goals that cover children’s health overall.”

Glasgow moment for health advocates 

Woman receives food assistance after widespread flooding the Horn of Africa and East Africa in 2020, linked by meterologists to climate change.

But air pollution is only one of a range of ways in which our addiction to fossil fuels is delivering a double whammy to health – and children’s health in particular. 

Other, even more direct impacts include deaths and illness from extreme heat, storms, flooding, fires and drought. In addition, reduced food production capacity, an expanding geographic range for many infectious diseases, and increasing risk of new animal-borne diseases leaping from the wild to burgeoning cities – as SARS-CoV2 did – are imminent threats too.

Given the rapid pace of climate change, “it won’t be long before the entire population of the world is affected, directly or indirectly,” said Julia Gillard, chair of the board of the UK-based philanthropy, Wellcome Trust and former Australian Prime Minister. 

Gillard was speaking at the COP26 “Global Conference on Health and Climate Change,” co-hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Glasgow on Saturday.

At the conference, co-sponsored by Wellcome, three UK-based universities and civil society groups, speakers warned of the burgeoning global health crisis that would result from inaction on climate change. 

“We are used to talking about climate as an environmental challenge, an economic challenge, an equity challenge. But it is also one of the most urgent health challenges facing us all today,” said Gillard.

Integrated policies not just global goals

Sir Andy Haines, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, speaking at the COP26 Climate and Health Summit.

Tackling the root sources of climate change more rapidly can generate immediate savings for health systems and societies. 

But that will require not only big picture targets but a complete rethinking of policies, regulations, taxes and finance incentives at national and local levels, experts at the conference pointed out. 

“We need people to work together for integrated solutions,” said Professor Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has written extensively on the planetary limits of not only temperature but also water, agricultural and forest ecosystems, which humankind needs to preserve to survive and thrive. 

Integration means recognising, for instance, that “the minister of transport is probably more a minister of health than the minister of health”, said Richard Smith, president of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

Commitment to ending financing for fossil fuel

Twenty-six countries, including the US, UK, Canada and Italy, as well as the European Investment Bank and the French development agency, Agence Française de Développement, signed a commitment late last week to “end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022, except in limited and clearly defined circumstances that are consistent with a 1.5°C warming limit and the goals of the Paris Agreement”.

The signatories also committed to prioritising their support “fully towards the clean energy transition”, using their resources to “enhance what can be delivered by the private sector”. They also commit to trying to persuade other governments, export credit agencies and public finance institutions to implement similar commitments into COP27 and beyond.

According to WHO climate scientist Dr Diarmid Campell-Lendrum, $5.9 trillion is spent on direct and indirect subsidies to the fossil fuel industry each year.

“We need to stop spending money on the wrong things and start spending it on the right things,” said Campbell-Lendrum, who cycled 1,600 km from Geneva to the Glasgow summit to drive home his point.  

He bore with him a letter calling for more climate action, signed by some 300 organisations, representing some 45 million health care professionals around the world.  In London, Campbell-Lendrum was met by a raft of other climate cycle enthusiasts who continued the relay, getting the letter to Glasgow, where it was delivered to the COP26 leadership.

Image Credits: Christine Olson/Flickr, IFRC, Paul Chappells.

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