A baby born this year—such as Penelope Page, born in a hotel in California last month after her parents fled a wildfire—will live a life “profoundly affected by climate change.” If greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current path, the world will be four degrees hotter by the time a child born today is 71 years old. That’s a version of the planet that no human has ever experienced. Food and water shortages are likely. Extreme heat may make some cities unlivable. Flooding and wildfires will destroy homes and critical infrastructure.
Even now, with one degree of warming, climate change is already impacting human health, and children born now will continue to experience health impacts throughout their lives, says a major new report—the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change—from 120 experts at 35 institutions including the World Bank, which appeared in the medical journal the Lancet.
“Climate change, very clearly, disproportionately harms certain populations, and children, unfortunately, bear the brunt of a lot of these health harms,” says Renee Salas, an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the lead author of the report for the United States. “I think the Lancet Countdown leadership really felt that it was critically important to make sure that we transmitted that in a way that truly resonated and truly highlighted that children’s health and well-being, both now and in the future, is being robbed by climate change.”
Increasing droughts, heat, and flooding are already making it harder to grow food in some areas, and infants and children are often most affected by food shortages. Warmer weather is making it possible for pathogens to live longer, causing diarrhea that can kill children. Mosquitoes that spread diseases such as dengue are spreading to areas where the disease didn’t exist in the past.
Children are also vulnerable to air pollution, caused by the same fossil fuels that drive climate change, and worsened as the weather warms (or, as in the case of California and Australia now, when climate change helps fuel wildfires that fill nearby cities with soot). Over time, air pollution damages the heart, lungs, and other organs. In 2016, air pollution called PM2.5, tiny particles of soot from cars and power plants, killed more than 64,000 Americans prematurely; around the world, air pollution killed millions more. As children born today get older, they’ll also have to deal with more frequent extreme heat; heat already kills more Americans than any other natural disaster.
The report also tracks indicators beyond health impacts, including how cities and countries are adapting to prepare for climate change and the growth of renewable energy. “As a doctor, you often think about prevention, so you want to try to prevent whatever the root cause is,” says Salas. “In addition, we have to also make sure that through adaptation we learn how to best protect the health of residents, and especially for vulnerable populations like children, older adults, those with lower socioeconomic status, and those with other chronic medical problems.”
There are some small indicators of progress, including the steep growth in renewable energy, though “that progress is inadequate,” the report says. But it’s not too late to fundamentally shift course. The report notes that a child born now will see the end of coal power in the U.K. by their sixth birthday; in France, by the time they turn 21, no more gasoline- or diesel-powered cars will be sold. When they’re 31, they could see the world reach net-zero emissions.
“We really stand at a precipice of opportunity, and I have a lot of optimism, because the solutions are here,” says Salas. “As a doctor, I think that the cases that I struggle with the most are those that I don’t have a treatment either to try to relieve the patient’s suffering or to cure them of whatever condition it is they’re presenting with. And we have the solutions here. We have the treatments. We just need to urgently and boldly implement them. When I have a critically ill patient in front of me and they’re crashing, we give that patient every treatment that might save their life. I think that this is exactly the same situation we need to do here. Climate change is a health emergency. We need to make sure that we implement every possible solution so that we can best protect the health of Americans and everyone living in the U.S. going forward.”