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Putting children at the heart of climate policy

Half the world’s children are severely impacted by the climate emergency

Published: 15 October 2021

One billion children are at ‘extremely high risk’ from the impacts of climate change, according to a Southampton-led consortium of researchers who conducted the analysis for a key UNICEF report that will be presented at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26.

Entitled The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI), the report presents the first comprehensive worldwide analysis of climate risk to children. It combines different types of information – physical data, such as floods and droughts, with social data, such as access to essential services – on a single map to show governments across the globe where they most need to focus their resources to protect vulnerable children.

The CCRI has been supported by the Data for Children Collaborative, which includes UNICEF and Save the Children, and includes a multi-university team, including the University of Edinburgh and the University of Stirling, led by the University of Southampton.

Surprise findings

“What we found surprised us,” says Craig Hutton, Professor of Sustainability Science, who led and conceptualised the risk mapping approach.

The scale of exposure is even larger than we anticipated: there are very few children in the world who are not exposed to some form of hazard – for example floods or heatwaves – resulting from climate change.

Craig Hutton - Professor of Sustainability Science

“Globally there are about a billion children who are exposed to multiple hazards, who would be counted as experiencing ‘extreme’ hazards. This figure took even UNICEF by surprise,” says Craig.

Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the two regions that stand out as areas where children are most at risk, says Craig. “As well as being very poor, these areas are going to be hit extraordinarily hard by floods and droughts, which, although it sounds contradictory, go hand in hand: periods of drought are interspersed with sudden inundations of rain that wash away the soil, causing food poverty.”

Craig and his team have called for children to have their own policies and approaches to the climate emergency.  

“In policymaking, children are often considered as just ‘small adults’,” says Craig. “However, there are aspects of children’s experience such as child labour, migration, health and nutrition that are unique to them. And, unlike adults, children are rarely able to make decisions and influence the situation themselves. For policies to protect our most vulnerable children to work, they need to be specific to the children themselves.”

Technical challenges

Combining diverse data sources such as flooding and poverty, and putting them on a single map that policymakers can use to inform their decisions, poses technical challenges that Southampton researchers are well placed to take on.

At Southampton we have a particular strength in working together across disciplines. We have experts in sustainability and poverty working with highly technical spatial statisticians, understanding each other’s viewpoints. In a project like this, that approach really pays off.

Craig Hutton - Professor of Sustainability Science

“I’m proud that we have helped UNICEF present as accurate a picture as we can at this stage of what’s going on in the world, with regards to the risk posed to children specifically by climate change. By building these maps we want to build a global community, encouraging individual countries to develop their own highly detailed maps so they know where to focus their resources,” says Craig.

“At the moment we are raising awareness, but the aim is that in time, this will translate to inform and influence policymakers to make decisions that will protect children from the worst impacts of climate change.”

These findings represent the state of child climate risk in 2020; Craig and his team will be presenting further work projecting child climate risk to 2050 on Earth Day in April 2022.

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