The climate crisis: Our children warned us, but we did not listen

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to address climate change once and for all.

Ap Photo child activism climate
Environmental activist Licypriya Kangujam, eight years old, holds a sign at Juhu beach during a cleaning drive in Mumbai, India, February 21, 2020 [AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade]

When children start suing governments for inaction on climate change, as they have in South Korea, Pakistan, India and several other countries, it is time to sit up and take notice.

The climate crisis is already a menace to countries battered by extreme weather events. But with much worse to come for future generations, it is also a child rights crisis. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines children’s rights to survival. It explicitly mentions “the dangers and risks of environmental pollution” including global heating.

But in a region that is already the world’s most disaster-prone, home to three of the biggest carbon-emitting countries and 99 of the 100 most polluted cities, such rights are being flushed into a pit of toxic waste.

These rights are undermined by every new coal plant opened, every new acre of forest burned, and every missed opportunity to rebuild the region’s currently stalled economies on cleaner, greener foundations.

There is a strong moral obligation on governments to take effective action to help minimise the effects of our unsustainable consumption of natural resources. But there is also growing recognition of governments’ legal obligations to do so. And our children have been making their voices heard. Until COVID-19.

The global pandemic has shifted everyone’s attention and silenced much of the child- and youth-led buzz around the climate crisis that captured public attention last year. Though many young climate activists have remained engaged, our analysis of social media finds the number of public online conversations about climate, which steadily rose during 2019, declined sharply in 2020 when COVID-19 emerged. Globally, public online discussions about climate between April and June this year plummeted by a staggering 70 percent compared with the same period last year.

But although COVID-19 has knocked the climate crisis off the political agenda, it does not mean it is not a burning issue. If anything, it poses a far greater threat to humanity than COVID-19, and no vaccine can fix it. 

With their futures most at stake, children and youth must be heard and their needs integrated when governments address the climate emergency with the bold level of ambition required, but collectively lacking so far. 

Asia-Pacific governments must be at the forefront because they face the biggest human impacts of the climate crisis. It is home to half the world’s population and two-thirds of its poor. Half of Asia’s urban population live in low-lying coastal zones and flood plains, which are most at risk from rising sea levels and floods. 

This year, South Asia has already seen two severe cyclones within a month and is currently experiencing one of the deadliest monsoons in years. Some Pacific island nations like Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu risk being wiped out by just a one-metre sea level rise. In China’s coastal areas, 23 million people are at risk from a one-metre rise in sea level. For East Asia as a whole, that figure jumps to 40 million.  

Scientists are warning our destruction of nature is heightening pandemic risks. Studies show that pandemics caused by viruses of animal origin are becoming more frequent, largely because of unsustainable human activities, like deforestation, illegal wildlife trade, water and air pollution and the industrial-scale meat industry, all of which disrupt the natural world and force animals and insects into contact with humans. Climate change is aggravating such disruptions, and children from poor and marginalised communities will continue to bear the worst impacts. 

Young climate activists and our scientists have been warning for years that humanity is consuming and abusing nature beyond its limits. Now we are paying the price for ignoring their warnings. But we want to say – we hear you. That is why the Stockholm Environment Institute and Save the Children are supporting a new campaign by young people across Asia-Pacific to make sure their concerns are heard loud and clear. 

Tackling the climate crisis and recovering from COVID-19 requires an all-of-society approach. Implementing the right technical measures like improving energy efficiency is important, but first we need to focus on empowerment and inclusion, and that means giving children and youth the tools and platforms they need to bring about lasting change. Yes, we need to “build back better”, but do so sustainably, placing social justice and gender equality front and centre.

Seventeen-year-old Kaviti from Sri Lanka recognises the problem. “My health is affected. I have some issues with my lungs and I get rashes from the heat,” she says. “The sea is filled with plastic. I do not think adults are working hard enough for this problem because most of them do not care, they put plastic and waste and garbage all over the city.” 

This is our commitment to Kaviti and millions of children around the world. Let us show them we care. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.