Polar bears and coral reefs are the usual poster children for victims of climate change—human children don’t usually come to mind. But it turns out that kids, too, are at special risk, especially if they live in the developing world, according to a new report published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Already, 86 percent of deaths linked to climate change happen in children under five years old, according to the World Health Organization.
Why are kids more susceptible to the health consequences of climate change?
1) Climate change is expected to reduce crop yields (PDF), leaving more people hungry. It may also increase the rates of many diseases, such as mosquito-borne malaria, that are linked to precipitation and temperature. Children are more vulnerable to the effects of disease and malnutrition than adults because they’re still developing. For example, when Plasmodium falciparum malaria infects children, it’s more likely to travel to their brains, a complication that’s fatal if left untreated.
2) A warmer planet means more wildfires, which create air pollution. Children breathe more air for their size than do adults and spend more time playing outside, so they’re more exposed to those pollutants.
3) Children deal with heat less effectively than adults because their bodies sweat less and create more heat when they exercise. High heat may also be dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn babies.
Unfortunately, the Environmental Health Perspectives report offers only a few specific solutions, most of them overwhelmingly ambitious, like relocating the inhabitants of low-lying islands.
Yet there are some feasible ideas in there: Giving out more mosquito nets. Putting in early warning systems for heat waves. The report even suggested that increasing women’s access to birth control would help, by allowing women to space their pregnancies at least six months apart, which helps babies get a head start against malnutrition and disease by reducing the risk (PDF) they’ll be born too soon or too small.