How many of you have little ones in your life? I’d guess most of you. You may be parents or aunts and uncles. Perhaps you have younger siblings. Regardless of title, anyone who loves children knows how special they are—from their relentless curiosity to their ruthless honesty.
They’ve got plenty to teach us adults. In a profile for The Guardian, youth climate activist Greta Thunberg said, “Of course, I might be naive because I’m very young, but I think naivety and childishness are sometimes a good thing.”
She’s right. After all, Thunberg’s school strikes—what some adults might have considered childish—sparked an international movement. On Friday, for the first time since the pandemic began, youth spilled onto the streets all across the globe in massive climate strikes. They’re not done fighting. They can’t quit; their futures hang in the balance. A new study published in Science Sunday underscores just how severely the climate crisis will affect their lives.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we respect the youth. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. When I get down, I turn to my two favorite people: my nephew and niece. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a gift my 12-year-old nephew gave me many years ago: a glass jar full of handwritten paper notes. “When things are hard, you make them fun.” “You love me no matter what.” “You encourage me.” “You’re smart.” “You’re funny.” I often think of him, his 5-year-old sister, and how much world leaders have already robbed them. They deserve so much more.
Aji Piper started young. The 21-year-old climate activist began speaking out for the planet nearly 10 years ago. In 2015, his advocacy reached a new level when he and 20 others decided to sue the U.S. government for its failure on climate action. He was only 14 back then. These days, he’s no longer trying to stop climate change. He’s focused on surviving it.
“At this point, it’s less about how we prevent the climate crisis or fight the climate crisis or reduce climate change,” Piper said. “It’s about how we become more sustainable and greener not only so that we can resolve this eventually but also so that we can survive the impacts that are immediate and raw.”
The science is clear: A single degree Celsius of warming has been enough to throw the planet into flux. It’ll only worsen with every fraction of a degree the Earth’s temperature rises. And, now, a new paper out Sunday lays out how much worse young people may have it compared to generations that came before them. Published in Science, the study found that children born in 2020 may face up to seven times more heat waves than those born in 1960.
“Climate change has arrived. We are now seeing the consequences.”
The research doesn’t only look at heat waves, either. The team of scientists also compared the impacts of five other extreme weather events: wildfires, crop failures, droughts, river floods, and tropical cyclones. Compared to a world where climate change doesn’t exist, a 6-year-old in 2020 will experience twice as many wildfires and tropical cyclones, three times more river floods, four times more crop failures, five times more droughts, and 36 times more heat waves in a world that’s warmed by 3 degrees Celsius. Even in a future where we meet the goals set forth in the Paris Agreement—and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius—people younger than 10 will experience about a fourfold increase in the extreme weather events throughout their lifetimes.
“There used to be this narrative whereby we say, We need to combat climate change for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said co-author Wim Thiery, a research professor of climate science at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. “What we are showing in our study is that those days are over now. Climate change has arrived. We are now seeing the consequences.”
The youth aren’t the only ones bearing a disproportionate burden of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The study found that people older than 55 would see “little effect” on their lifetime exposure to extreme weather events, but those of us younger than 40 face “unprecedented exposure” for disasters like drought and flooding. It’s not only the kids, but they are what inspired Thiery to examine the issue in the first place.
A popular argument within the youth-led climate movement has been that these young people will bear a disproportionate burden of climate inaction. This is true in the climate strikes organized by Fridays for Future, as well as lawsuits like Piper’s that have been launched around the world. While society was using anecdotes to debate whether young people really have it that much worse, Thiery decided to let the numbers do the talking. He and his team combined five sources of data, including several types of global demographic data, climate impact models, and emissions projections.
“It is a legal question whether a 15-year-old is more entitled to start a lawsuit than an adult given the fact that they might face more consequences,” Thiery said. “This is something that we as climate scientists hadn’t quantified… That’s why we decided to perform this analysis.”
Despite all these data inputs, Thiery is certain the research is an underestimate. That’s because the paper only assesses the frequency of extreme weather events while ignoring their duration and intensity. The paper also allows only one extreme weather event per category a year. We know that a single year may experience several cyclones, but the methodology prevented the team from counting every single storm in a year and, instead, forced them to quantify only whether it happened at all. Events that occur at the same time or trigger other events—like a heat wave that helps cause a drought—aren’t included in the analysis either.
What’s perhaps the least surprising in the research is that these impacts won’t be felt equally throughout the globe. Those who contributed the least emissions to the climate crisis will be the ones whose children will likely suffer the most. Lifetime exposure for children born in the Middle East and North Africa trumps the realities those born in North America will face. Low-income countries, in general, will bear the largest burden. These are also some of the regions where millions more children are expected to be born in coming years.
While this all sounds grim and dark, the study is clear that there are levels to this. Sure, children will suffer even in a best-case climate scenario. Even more will suffer if we don’t strive to reach that. However, the blame isn’t on you, me, or we. And the burden shouldn’t fall on children. It’s on our world leaders who waste time bickering over bills in Congress or who continue to take money from the coal industry. The people who will suffer the most are the ones who have no say in who is elected to the world’s highest offices. And that’s why they’re taking their leaders to court instead.
Piper can vote now. He can do a lot more than when he was 14 and first moved to sue the U.S. government, but he’s still waiting on the courts—and on President Joe Biden to make a move. Biden can drag his feet for only so long before reality catches up.