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Five ways in which heatwaves threaten child rights, from education to daily meals

As temperatures soar across the world, extreme heat is putting children’s health at risk, locking them out of education and making them increasingly anxious about the future, Save the Children said.
18 July 2023

As temperatures soar across the world, extreme heat is putting children’s health at risk, locking them out of education and making them increasingly anxious about the future, Save the Children said.

China recorded its highest ever temperature on Sunday,[i] and nearly a third of all Americans – more than 110 million people, including over 20 million children – have been under heat advisories in recent days. Meanwhile, Europe is expected to see its hottest ever day today when temperatures on the Italian island of Sardinia reach 48C.

The past few months have seen record-breaking temperatures across many countries in Asia, with children affected by poverty, inequality and discrimination disproportionately affected.

Research released by Save the Children in partnership with Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Born into the Climate Crisis, found children born in 2020 face on average seven times as many scorching heatwaves as their grandparents under the emission reduction pledges made as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement. In some countries this is much worse, with children in Afghanistan facing 18 times as many heatwaves as their grandparents.

The El Nino weather pattern is also warming parts of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, triggering extreme weather events including heatwaves and likely  to trigger a new spike in global heating, with scientists predicting it is extremely likely one of the next five years will be the hottest year on record.

But we do still have power to act – and acting urgently to limit warming temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels will reduce this average additional lifetime exposure to heatwaves by 45%.[ii] As well as limiting warming temperatures, Save the Children said authorities need to adapt schools and health systems so that they are resilient to heatwaves, child-sensitive, and accessible and available to all.

Kelley Toole, Global Head of Climate Change at Save the Children, said: “Children around the world are being affected by the climate crisis now.  Heatwaves make them sick, stop them from learning and leave them hungry. We need urgent climate action now and children need to be at the heart of this.”

Here are five ways in which scorching heatwaves are impacting the rights of children:

1. Health impacts

Children exposed to extreme heat are at greater risk of respiratory disease, kidney disease and other health hazards.

The more that children are exposed to extreme heat, the greater their risk of respiratory and kidney disease, fever, and electrolyte imbalance, which can disrupt a range of critical functions, including heart and neurological functions, according to a Lancet study.[iii] It can also cause severe dehydration, exhaustion and heatstroke, which if untreated can quickly damage the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles, being fatal in some cases.[iv]

Keeping hydrated, staying as cool as possible and staying out of the sun can all lower the chances of becoming sick.[v]

But sometimes this is not possible, and children affected by inequality, discrimination and conflict are particularly vulnerable and most likely to lack access to quality healthcare.

This includes refugees and displaced children, Save the Children said, like Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, who live under the scorching heat in overcrowded, congested shelters made from tarpaulin and bamboo. These children often face water-borne disease outbreak like diarrhoea and cholera that put their lives under threat.

2. Disrupted learning

Recent heatwaves have seen schools close around the world.

Even when children can go to school, the heat can affect their concentration. Child campaigner Justina, 16, from Zambia, told Save the Children about fainting in the classroom: “When it’s so hot, I faint. Last week, I fainted because of the hotness. That was at school, and I felt bad that it was in public. I don’t know what happened to me! I felt suffocated, due to the heat.”

Heat can have a significant impact on education, with students showing lower levels of achievement during hot school years. Research suggests that every one degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature reduces the amount learned in a school year by 1%.[vi] Heat exposure can exacerbate inequalities, with students from lower-income homes more likely to live in areas impacted by heat, and less likely to benefit from things like air-conditioning.

As well as limiting warming temperatures, Save the Children said that authorities need to adapt schools and other educational facilities to withstand heatwaves and include climate education in the curriculum.

3. Hunger

Across the world, crop failures and the death of livestock brought about by extreme heat put food out of reach for children and families and often end up pushing prices up for everyone, The record-breaking heat in the US is currently threatening crop yields, for example, and lower-income countries have been facing drought and crop failures for years.

Meanwhile in a recent heatwave in Bangladesh, power outages forced shops to shut down, wiping out daily incomes for families and putting food further out of reach.

Save the Children said that higher-income countries need to invest more in child-sensitive and shock-responsive social protection systems to help families and children cope and to invest in long-term planning that will build community resilience. Recent research by Save the Children and other members of the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative (CERI) found that just 2.4% of key global climate funds can be classified as supporting child-responsive activities.

4. Unable to play

For many children, these heatwaves are coming as schools break up for the holidays. But with authorities warning people to stay inside, children are more likely to be cooped up, lonely and unable to do activities that are critical to their physical and mental development, such as playing with friends and physical exercise. This can also pose protection risks to children.

5. Psychological distress

Hot summer days drive up the number of people experiencing mental health emergencies, according to recent research.

Even watching the unfolding climate emergency at a distance takes its toll on the mental health of children all over the world. Research from Save the Children UK last year found that 70% of children in the UK were worried about the future they will inherit, with 56% saying they thought climate change and inequality are causing a deterioration in child mental health globally.

Meanwhile, a separate study in the Lancet journal found that more than 45% of children and young people[vii] across 10 countries said their feelings about the climate crisis negatively affected their daily life and functioning.

ENDS

MEDIA CONTACT: media.team@savethechildren.org.au.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

[i] UK Met Office.
[ii] Born into the Climate Crisis.
[iii] Watts N (et al), 2019. ‘The 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate’. Lancet. 2019 Nov. 16;394(10211):1836–1878.
[iv] British Medical Journal, How hot weather kills: the rising public health dangers of extreme heat | The BMJ.
[v] Heat and Health (who.int).
[vi] When the heat is on, student learning suffers | Harvard Kennedy School.
[vii] between 16 and 25 years old.

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