Today’s kids will suffer many times more extreme heatwaves and other climate change-fueled disasters over their lifetimes than their grandparents, assuming limited or no action to curb emissions.
That’s according to a study, published in the journal Science, that claims it is the first to examine the experiences of climate extremes by different age groups, calling attention to intergenerational injustice posed by the climate crisis.
The average 6-year-old will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents, the study finds. The child will see twice as many wildfires, 1.7 times as many tropical cyclones, 3.4 times more river floods, 2.5 times more crop failures and 2.3 times as many droughts over their life as someone born in 1960.
The analysis found that only those under 40 years today will live to see the consequences of the choices made on emissions cuts. Those who are older will have died before the impacts of those choices become apparent in the world.
But, the authors suggest, cutting global emissions to keep global warming to the 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) target would almost halve the heatwaves today’s children will experience, while keeping under 2 degrees would reduce the number by a quarter.
“If countries manage to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, newborns’ risk of extreme heat exposure o over their lifetime will fall almost by half.”
— Study published in the journal Science
“The consequence of children suffering unprecedented sequences of climate extremes over the course of their lives can now be attributed to the inaction of today’s adults,” said study lead Wim Thiery. “It also shows how much can be gained by ambitious emissions reductions.”
The 1.5-degree target is the more aggressive number of a voluntary global-warming pledge made at the Paris climate conference in 2015. Participants at that time stressed that at least a 2-degree limit was necessary and that 1.5 would be better. An upcoming U.N. climate meeting in Glasgow in November is considered by many officials to be the key gathering to push for stronger pledges and more measurable actions.
If countries manage to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, newborns’ risk of extreme heat exposure will fall almost by half. They could see 11% fewer crop failures, 27% fewer droughts and almost a third as many river floods over their life than if emissions continue unabated.
A U.N. report published earlier this month warned that, based on countries’ current climate pledges, greenhouse gas emissions could actually increase by 16% by the end of the decade. That would put the planet on track to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
The U.S., under president Joe Biden, has pledged to half its emissions by the end of the decade and flip to net zero emissions by 2050 mainly through the adaption of renewable energy, including nuclear, and carbon capture. The U.S. is the globe’s second-largest polluter behind China, which has said it can hit net zero by 2060.
The generational differences in exposure to climate change are especially dramatic in developing nations, whose energy consumption
and related emissions pale next to the developing world. For instance, infants in sub-Saharan Africa are projected to live through 50 to 54 times as many heat waves as someone born in the preindustrial era.
And, the research scientists warned that the numbers provided in the study are almost certainly an underestimate. Data limitations and the complexity of the analysis mean the scientists could not assess the increased risk of all hazards, for instance coastal flooding due to sea level rise. The study also doesn’t take into account the increased severity of weather events; it looked only at frequency.
Young people have already made it clear they feel climate anxiety.
Teenagers and people in their early 20s are increasingly worried that older generations and political leaders aren’t doing enough to prevent a climate-change catastrophe, they said in a separate study out earlier this month. They’re so concerned, in fact, that four in 10 aren’t sure they’ll have children of their own.
The study, called Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon, quiered 10,000 respondents aged 16 to 25 across 10 countries.
Nearly six in 10 polled were very or extremely worried about climate change. A similar number said governments were not protecting them, the planet, or future generations, and they felt betrayed by the older generation and governments.