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Children’s vulnerability and the impacts of climate change – policy-makers must pay greater attention

Written by Lindsey Jones

We know that children are one of the most vulnerable groups to the impacts of climate change. We also know that the nature of their vulnerability is multidimensional - shaped largely by their physical, cognitive and physiological sensitivities and the changes that take place over the course of childhood. Yet despite this, we don’t have a good understanding of how climate change is likely to directly affect children at the local level, and how policy can best address their specific needs.

Research in South Africa, summarised in a new report by ODI and supported by UNICEF and the Government of South Africa, aims to address part of this shortfall. Launched just a week before the UN’s climate change summit in Durban, the report highlights the specific nature of children’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change in South Africa, and points to a clear lack of attention and direction from policy processes at all levels. Presented to the South African Minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, the report calls for: i) better understanding and awareness of climate change amongst children, ii) more active agency in prevention and response strategies, and iii) greater and more meaningful participation in relevant policy decisions that affect them.

Part of the challenge in understanding how climate change affects children is the complexity of interactions between the two. Not only can climate change affect most aspects of children’s development directly – whether on health, nutrition, education or emotional and social wellbeing – but it will also overlap with other development pressures at the local and household levels, such as rising food prices, spread of disease and illness, and competition over scarce natural resources. Added to this, impacts will largely depend on the context: rural children will experience the impacts of climate change in a different way to urban children, and impacts on children from poor and marginalised households are likely to be very different than those felt by comparatively well-off households.
In trying to make sense of this complexity, the study separates primary impacts (short-term, physical impacts associated with a changing climate) from secondary impacts (the effects of longer-term coping and adaptation strategies on children). Although both overlap and are likely to have profound effects on children, our findings suggest that the emphasis has so far been skewed towards primary and direct impacts. Little attention has been given to understanding and addressing the secondary impacts.

In unpicking some of the secondary impacts, it is important to recognise that the way households and children adapt to changing climate and development pressures will vary. They are also likely to be influenced by intra-household dynamics and decisions within the household. If we take Southern Africa as an example, common responses may be seen in the form of lifestyle changes (behavioural adjustments and changes to management of household resources which can, for example, cause changes in children’s access to basic goods and services), supplementing livelihoods (often through seeking other forms of temporary income, including, for example, through the greater participation of children in paid labour or shouldering greater domestic burdens), or adopting new livelihoods practices (where livelihoods are no longer viable and sustainable, which might result in children or their caregivers having to migrate).

Though many of these are similar to household responses to other development challenges such as economic hardship and recession, our understanding of the trickle down effects of adaptation on children is poor. With this in mind, as the climate continues to change, adaptation actions will likely need to be more and more transformative in nature- with progressively more profound implications on children’s development and wellbeing likely.  

Like many middle- and high-income countries, South Africa has been active in generating strategies, policies and plans that respond to a growing awareness of climate change. In general, however, children remain invisible as the majority of policies and programmes (whether at national, provincial or district levels) do not yet adequately recognise children’s vulnerabilities, their specific needs and the role children can play as agents of change at the grassroots level.
In general, policy processes regard the rights of children to be subsumed within households and communities. In this way children are expected to benefit automatically from measures that target vulnerable and poor families as well as from the economic and social development of communities per se.

Despite these challenges, there are concrete policy actions that can be taken to address children’s needs – and ones that can be taken now. Although children are often considered in terms of their inherent vulnerability, it is a mistake to think of them entirely as victims. There is growing global evidence of the positive role children can play in relation to climate change. They can transfer knowledge to their households and communities, can promote positive change, and can inform local-level planners about how to reduce the risks that they face with the increased likelihood of disasters.

In South Africa spaces are starting to be made for children to participate and become more actively engaged in issues related to climate change. However, they are still limited in scope and scale. Some initiatives, supported by schools, have already inspired children and adolescents to voice their opinions about climate change and the protection of the environment and become active participants in discussions. The next step is to articulate these initiatives to local policy spaces where their voices can be heard, in order to inform better planning and to ensure a greater focus on children’s adaptive capacity.

The transition from policy rhetoric to tangible and meaningful action is one that won’t happen easily. Nor is it by any means a problem limited to South Africa. The more aware children and young people are of the issues of climate change and how these are likely to affect them in the future, the greater the pressure for concrete action from policy-makers. Despite their relative lack of agency and voice in climate change discussions at all levels, momentum is starting to shift, and children are demanding to be heard. Or as Mokgadi Seemola, a 16-year-old representative of a local youth club eloquently put it to the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities at the launch event, ‘...we need help from those in power. What have you done to make sure that people in the future will smile and say “someone has done something for me”?’