COP27: ICDI’s take on climate change and children's lives

January 17, 2023

Introduction to COP27

 

The UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits for nearly three decades on the so-called "COP", which stands for "Conference of the Parties". World leaders, policymakers and intergovernmental organisations are involved in reaching an agreement on how to tackle climate change together. The COP takes place every year in a different location. Last year, Egypt was the host of the 27th meeting in the city of Sharm El-Sheik. The current presidency's vision is to move from negotiations and planning towards Implementation, taking concrete action on the ground. 

Despite efforts to include a diverse range of participants, the representation of women, children (particularly girls), vulnerable groups, and minorities (especially from low-income countries and the global south) is quite unequal. Critical voices acknowledged the difficulties of participants from low-income countries to travel and participate or even be invited, despite these being the people facing the worst consequences of climate change. The limited presence of women, children and marginalized communities effectively reduces their agency, preventing them from advocating for their own rights and communicating their own needs.

In this article, we would like to zoom in on how climate change is affecting and will affect children’s lives, especially in low-income countries and the global south, and how public forums, such as the COP27, should (and can) promote and embrace meaningful youth participation to bring about real and lasting change.

Climate change and children’s lives

Climate change is a major threat to children and young people (especially to girls), putting children’s overall health, nutrition, education, and development at risk. Children and young people are more vulnerable and less capable than adults to survive extreme weather events, temperature changes, and toxic hazards and the diseases these can cause, among other factors1.

Even though climate change affects children in numerous ways, in this article we will focus on how climate change threatens children’s health, how changing weather patterns put children at increased risk, and how climate change is different for children living in low-income countries.

Climate change and children’s health

Climate change can have a direct and indirect impact on children’s lives. The direct effects of climate change are related to changing weather patterns, heatwaves, storms, flooding, etc. which in turn are associated with childhood morbidity and mortality2.

According to UNICEF (2015), young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of heatwaves, particularly dehydration and heat stroke, as they are often more active than adults and don’t sweat as much, which makes it more difficult for their bodies to cool down. On the other hand, the increment of precipitation increases the risk of flooding and the mortality and morbidity it comes with. Children (especially the most vulnerable) are at risk of drowning, injuries, and infectious diseases such as water insecurity, malaria, and respiratory infections.

These drastic weather changes put children at increased risk of displacement and migration. For families who depend solely on agriculture, droughts and extreme weather conditions have forced them to move to urban areas. In these urban areas, these families can end up in informal settings where their houses might not be connected to water or sewerage, or their homes are built with dangerous or unsafe materials. Keeping children safe and clean becomes more difficult and puts an additional toll on the parent’s mental and physical health.

Furthermore, an indirect result of climate change is air pollution and its effects on children. The impact on children’s health is different according to the child’s age. For example, during pregnancy, reduced growth of the baby is associated with air pollution. In birth, air pollution is associated with pre-term birth and low birth weight, while in early childhood it can cause decreased lung growth, reduced lung function, and lower respiratory infections, including pneumonia and developmental difficulties. 

Climate change is different for children living in low-income countries

Even though climate change impacts all children, children living in low-income countries and the global south are at increased vulnerability. These countries depend more often on natural resources which puts them at risk of being the most affected by changing weather patterns (heatwaves, droughts, flooding, etc.). Children living in these countries are at increased risk of malnutrition, natural disasters, and infectious diseases3.

Besides the previously mentioned risks, low-income countries often have limited social safety, general poverty, vulnerable healthcare systems, and fragile governmental institutions, making it more difficult for them to respond to climate change and to keep children’s safety as a priority in their agenda4.

It is also essential to state that the climate crisis is not “gender neutral”. As we can read in an article published in February 2022 on the UN Women website: ‘Women and girls experience the greatest impacts of climate change, which amplifies existing gender inequalities and poses unique threats to their livelihoods, health, and safety. Across the world, women depend more on, yet have less access to, natural resources. In many regions, women bear a disproportionate responsibility for securing food, water, and fuel’.

Growing evidence5 from INGOs and intergovernmental agencies demonstrates that women and girls face increased vulnerabilities to gender-based violence as climate change creates and exacerbates conflict across the globe:

  • Girls often drop out of school to work, do domestic chores or look after their younger siblings.
  • Girls go hungry more often than boys when there is a food shortage and, considering that many girls are already malnourished, they are more exposed to certain diseases, especially during menstruation, pregnancy, and the post-natal period.
  • Child marriage becomes more common as families consider it a way to reduce the financial burden of taking care of girls.
  • Girls are at increased risk of violence and exploitation (including sexual and physical abuse and trafficking) during and after extreme weather, especially while collecting food and water and when living in temporary shelters.
  • Natural disasters and emergencies cause the disruption of health services, resulting in an increase in unplanned pregnancies and sexual and reproductive health problems.

Given the increased threat posed by climate change and the vulnerability of children and youth, it should be evident that it is essential to ensure that children and young people (and especially girls) have a voice where decisions on this issue are taken, such as the COP27.

 

 

Child and youth participation in climate change

Children and Youth at COP27: a seat at the table

Even though children and youth have always been strong advocates on climate change, they remain sceptical of climate conferences, as many times their participation is not meaningful, and promises are not fulfilled by those responsible.

Some youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, decided to skip the meeting, claiming youth's participation was simply "youthwashing". This new concept refers to big public gestures of inviting children and youth to be part of an event without being truly involved in the debate and negotiations. In addition, many activists stated that COP27 was compromised by the large presence of oil and gas lobbyists.

"Every year world leaders and the UN climate summit say that they're listening to the youth and most affected people yet we're still on the path of destruction", said Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a Philippine activist of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines.

Multiple young activists have shared their criticism around the COP, and climate activism in general since they are seldom part of the decision-making process.  The Women & Gender Constituency, one of the official stakeholder groups of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) stated in an interview that “Young women activists, especially Black, Indigenous, and young activists of colour from the Global South, too often experience tokenisation of their voices, cooptation of their perspectives, and exploitation of their leadership in the COP space.” Despite the skepticism of some, other young activists decided to still participate, calling the problem out from the inside and taking a critical view on the subject. 

Enhancing the meaningful participation of children and youth in climate change processes was one of the promises of the Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Change action signed in COP25 (2019) promoted by UNICEF. This declaration represented a first-of-its-kind set of commitments by States to consistently consider children’s specific needs, rights and perspectives in their climate policies and action at all levels. After this commitment, this year, for the first time ever, children and youth were given an official space at the UN climate change conference in Egypt through the Children and Youth Pavilion.

The Pavilion was organised entirely by youth-lead organisations supporting youth engagement and inclusion - including Fridays for Future and the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition, with Save the Children and UNICEF as some of the institutional partners. This space enabled children and youth activists to hold discussions and policy briefings, giving them an official seat at the table. Young experts and climate advocates were invited to present at the COP27 and were able to showcase the groundbreaking initiatives led by youth around the world and participate in climate policy discussions.

In sharing their experiences and concerns, children, and youth hoped to bring a greater sense of urgency to the topic of climate change, to secure more climate finance for communities devastated by the climate crisis, and to ensure that leaders make a firm commitment to phase out fossil fuels and other environmentally destructive practices before it is too late.

Children and youth’s contribution to decision-making processes can greatly promote a more intersectional perspective and is one important step towards ensuring that other marginalised groups (e.g, indigenous, Afro-descendent, older women and men, LGBTIQ+ people, women and men with disabilities, migrants, and those living in rural, remote, conflict and disaster-prone areas) are also represented and heard. 

In ICDI, we believe that organisations need to make sure youth voices are heard and considered to be able to successfully address the specific challenges of young people. After all, young people can tell best what works for them. Therefore, enabling young people to strengthen their voices should be one of the central ambitions of every institution, organisation and NGO. This is why, through our projects and programmes, training and consultancies, we promote and encourage Meaningful Youth Participation (MYP) and ensure that young people can be involved in processes of decision-making on policies, strategies and programmes that affect them. When participation is truly meaningful, it benefits society as a whole.

At ICDI we are committed to promote innovative participatory methodologies, as outlined in the Lundy Model, which proposes that meaningful participation requires a space, voice, audience, and influence. A conscious effort should be made at every stage of the development of climate research, policy, legislation, and services to integrate children and youth participation.  

Conclusions

Children’s well-being is ICDI’s mission and youth participation one of our transversal approaches to achieve it. It is essential to ensure that children and young people have a voice where decisions on this issue are taken, to support climate education and to support communities and governments where children live to be ready for and adapt to the climate crisis.

Bringing children and youth into decision-making processes leads to more intersectional perspectives. It is an important step in ensuring that other marginalised groups are also represented and heard and that their expertise is recognised. In order to address climate change, it is important that all those affected by its effects participate.

When it comes to climate change protection, there needs to be improvement and establishment of mechanisms that ensure that children, young people and other marginalised groups are listened to and involved in decision-making at both national and international levels. This needs to include indigenous, Afro-descendent, older women and men, LGBTIQ+ people, women and men with disabilities, migrants, and those living in rural, remote, conflict and disaster-prone areas. This requires governments, NGO's, and communities to demonstrate a strong commitment, while also training and building the capacity of decision-makers so that they can work inclusively.

In our current and future work, ICDI pledges to put Participation and Climate Action as transversal approaches in programme development and strategic planning, in the hopes that our effort (and that of our partner organisations) can influence the well-being of children and young people affected my climate change. We strongly believe that resources should be allocated to ensure meaningful participation of marginalised groups affected by climate change. It is also important to ensure investments to aid countries struggling the most with extreme weather patterns and climate change, and that women, children (particularly girls), and those from marginalised communities become primary beneficiaries of climate financing, through people-centric investments.

Want to learn more? We recommend these readings:

Climate Activists Say They’re Sick of Being ‘Youthwashed’ at COP26 https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5qpzj/climate-activists-say-theyre-sick-of-being-youthwashed-at-cop26

Children aren’t the future: where have all the young climate activists gone?: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/29/children-arent-the-future-where-have-all-the-young-climate-activists-gone

Climate Influencers and the Politics of Attention: https://edgeeffects.net/youth-climate-activists/

Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action: https://www.unicef.org/environment-and-climate-change/climate-declaration#declaration

Youth Leading on Climate: Interview with Elizabeth Gulugulu: https://unfccc.int/news/youth-leading-on-climate-interview-with-elizabeth-gulugulu

Footnotes:

Fact sheet COP26 – Children and climate change 

Climate change and child health: a scoping review and an expanded conceptual framework 

Air pollution and stunting: evidence from Indonesia 

4 Implications of Climate Change for Children in Developing Countries 

5 Examples of recent evidence 

References: 

Euronews (2022) Children’s COP: Young people given a ‘seat at the table’ for the first time in Egypt https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/10/20/childrens-cop-young-people-given-a-seat-at-the-table-for-the-first-time-in-egypt

Euronews (2022) What is 'youthwashing' and is it dangerous for the climate movement? https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/12/23/what-is-youthwashing-and-is-it-dangerous-for-the-climate-movement

BBC (2022) COP27: Without Greta, activists make waves at climate summit https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-63599932

COP27 (2022) https://cop27.eg/

Children and Youth Pavilion (2022) https://www.childrenandyouthpavilion.info/home

Early Childhood Matters https://earlychildhoodmatters.online/2021/climate-change-is-forcing-young-children-into-high-risk-urban-slums/?ecm2021

Fact sheet COP26 – Children and climate change https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/fact-sheet-cop26-children-and-climate-change

Climate change and child health: a scoping review and an expanded conceptual framework https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(20)30274-6/fulltext

Air pollution and stunting: evidence from Indonesia https://earlychildhoodmatters.online/2021/air-pollution-and-stunting-evidence-from-indonesia/?ecm2021