A child born in 2011 enters an environment vastly different than that of his grandparents, who might have been born 50-60 years ago when the color television was a new-fangled invention and the planet had less than half the occupants it does at present. He might live to be 80 – if he survives the first five years (depending on where he is born) — and if so, could see the populace increase by another 2-billion in that time.
United Nations long-range projections expect the population to peak around 9-billion as early as the end of this century. The steep trajectory of the last hundred years – fueled by industrialization, medicine, improved work and living conditions – is expected to slow as issues of sustainability, disease, natural disaster, and fertility take effect.
While the median age on planet Earth is currently about 28 (according to the Central Intelligence Agency), it will average out to 44 years or higher in 2100, and as the bulk of the population exits their reproductive years, childbirth will slump.
But today, half the global population crowds under the age of 25. The impact of this aggregation of youth will shape the world, inasmuch as the world will shape them.
Climate Change Impacts Children
In a recent United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, climate change is recognized as a pivotal factor in the increase in natural disasters, with 350 incidences cited in 2004, up from an average of 12 disasters per year in the first half of the 20th century.
Children are the most vulnerable segment of the population and most likely to be harmed by devastation and environmental issues: pollution, physical hazards, and ‘Acts of God’ – which result in flooding, destruction of shelter, exposure, failed crops and more. These catastrophes have both a direct and indirect impact on youth, as life-threatening conditions are exacerbated by the depletion of water safe for consumption, and an increase in diseases caused by poor sanitation.
In fact the greatest risk to children (and all persons, for that matter) is a lack of sanitation and clean water. Worldwide, 8-9 million will die before the age of five: an astonishing 4 million within the first month of life.
SAVE THE CHILDREN points to diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia, measles, HIV and AIDS as the cause of 90 percent of these deaths – mostly preventable ailments, but unattainable for the poorest children on the planet.
Vulnerability to the impacts of climate change also contributes to increasing rates of child labor, according to Professor Alyson Warhurst, CEO of Maplecroft, a British risk analysis and mapping organization. “Drought and deforestation result in more work for children, as they must travel greater distances to gather water and fuel for farming purposes; whilst more frequent and severe climate related disasters will lead to raised levels of poverty, forcing children from education and into the workforce to support their families.”
While some estimate the number of young people who work at 620-million, the International Labor Organization puts it at 215-million. Having to work strips young people of educational opportunities, and further perpetuates a cycle of poverty.
Finally, as the median age of the populace increases (the number of persons 60-plus has doubled in just three years) the burden of supporting health and social programs for a burgeoning population of senior citizens will fall upon the youth of today.
Call for New Perspective
Dr. Don Edgar, a professional fellow at Australia’s Monash University, recognizes a disparity, saying, “We need to change the way we think about children.
“The future that today’s children face is different to previous generations, and education must lead them towards the skills they will need to be capable citizens able to adjust to rapid change and serve the economic and social purposes of society.”
Investments in youth – education, nutrition, health care, gender equity, protection from hazardous and debasing environments and occupations – can stimulate change and turn the tide on destructive patterns of the past.
UNICEF sees children as “protagonists in the response to climate change.” If the world can take the knowledge gleaned over the centuries, direct the technologies of the present, and tap the energy sources of the future, the world – 7-billion strong – can be rejuvenated in the hands of today’s children.