Youth at ‘extremely high risk’ from global warming, UN says, on anniversary of Thunberg-led strikes

Children push a bicycle through a flooded street following heavy rains in Hyderabad, India, on October 15, 2020.
Children push a bicycle through a flooded street following heavy rains in Hyderabad, India, on October 15, 2020. © Noah Seelam, AFP

Nearly half the world’s children are at “extremely high risk” from the effects of global warming, a new UN report has found, which was launched to coincide with the third anniversary of activist Greta Thunberg’s first climate school strike.


In the first index of its kind to assess the risk of climate change for children, the August 20 report by the UN children’s agency UNICEF found that almost all the world’s 2.2 billion children are exposed to at least one climate or environmental risk – from floods, drought, heatwaves and air pollution – but nearly half of these children live in 33 countries facing multiple environmental shocks. These countries include much of sub-Saharan Africa, India, Nigeria and the Philippines and are among the world’s lowest carbon emitters, but extreme weather coupled with existing inequities made children there more vulnerable.

The report used high-resolution maps showing changes to the climate overlaid with maps showing factors contributing to child vulnerability such as poverty and access to education, healthcare, food and clean water.

“For the first time, we have a complete picture of where and how children are vulnerable to climate change and that picture is almost unimaginably dire,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director. “Virtually no child’s life will be unaffected.”

With less than 100 days before this year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Greta Thunberg, who contributed to the report’s forward along with other youth activists, urged world leaders to use the November summit to take concrete action.

“We are still just talking and greenwashing things instead of taking real action,” the 18-year-old activist said at a press conference to launch the report. “We are not just victims, we are also leading the fight. But the world is still not treating the climate crisis like an emergency.” 

Thunberg was joined by other young activists including Mitzi Jonelle Tan, 23, from the Philippines, who spoke of doing homework by candlelight as typhoons raged outside or fearing drowning in her bed as floodwaters filled her room.

After months of extreme weather and dire warnings from scientists, world leaders' "empty promises and vague plans" were no longer enough, Tan said.

"There's no excuse for this COP ... to not be the one that changes things."

Fore said young people globally were leading by example, pointing to a UNICEF survey that found nine out of ten children in 21 countries felt it was their responsibility to tackle climate change.

#FridaysForFuture becomes global

Many have been inspired by Thunberg, who became the face of the campaign to combat climate change, after she galvanised young people en masse with her Fridays for Future movement.

Thunberg’s climate activism began when as a 15-year-old student she skipped classes on August 20, 2018, to launch a lone protest outside her school against climate inaction, which then moved to the outside of Sweden’s parliament house. Her actions struck a chord and soon millions of young people staged their own climate strikes outside parliaments in other countries around the world.

Invited to the UN Climate Summit in New York in September 2019, Thunberg excoriated world leaders in an impassioned speech that drew both admiration and scorn.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she told global leaders. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you.”

A polarising climate crusader

Thunberg’s blistering speech triggered a slew of attacks, some of them personal, as online haters and conservatives focused on her angry demeanour and alarmist language. The trope of an “angry young woman” berating white middle-class male leaders, including then US president Donald Trump, for their failure to act on climate change became a viral meme.

Her presence at the summit was also memorable as press photographers captured Thunberg’s glacial gaze as it fixated on Trump, a climate change denier, as the president’s aides shuttled him away from a potentially embarrassing face-to-face encounter with the schoolgirl activist.

But as her work with UNICEF demonstrates, Thunberg remains a leading light in the global movement for action on climate change, and her appeal has crossed generations.

US actress Jane Fonda was so inspired by Thunberg that she launched a parallel movement, Fire Drill Fridays, in Washington, where she and other celebrities staged sit-ins on Capitol Hill in support of Thunberg’s message.

“They are more politically savvy than we ever were at that age,” Fonda said when asked about the young climate crusaders who inspired her in an interview with BBC Radio 4. “They’re much more sensitive of diversity. This can’t be a white, elite climate action.”

Thunberg stands somewhat vindicated after a series of damning reports, the last published this month by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that show some environmental damage is already irreversible and that the world is hurtling towards a climate catastrophe.

The findings were released against a backdrop of deadly floods and wildfires – some of which are still burning – that devastated Europe, the US, China and North Africa in recent months.

On the third anniversary of the Thunberg-led school strikes, UNICEF chief Fore said “there is still time to act”, citing the role of governments and businesses in listening to children and in prioritising “actions that protect them from impacts while accelerating work to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

Meanwhile the Fridays for Future movement, which halted public demonstrations during the coronavirus pandemic, will resume its protests with a global climate strike planned for September 24.

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