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Today’s kids will live through three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents, study says

Published in the journal Science, the findings quantify the ‘intergenerational inequality’ of climate change

Zailey Segura, Zavery Segura and their mother Karen Smith wade through floodwaters after Hurricane Nicholas made landfall in Galveston, Tex., on Sept. 14. (Mark Felix/For The Washington Post)
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Adriana Bottino-Poage is 6 years old, with cherub cheeks and curls that bounce when she laughs. She likes soccer, art and visiting the library. She dreams of being a scientist and inventing a robot that can pull pollution out of the air. She wants to become the kind of grown-up who can help the world.

Yet human actions have made the world a far more dangerous place for Adriana to grow up, according to a first-of-its-kind study of the impacts of climate change across generations.

If the planet continues to warm on its current trajectory, the average 6-year-old will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents, the study finds. They 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 as someone born in 1960.

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These findings, published this week in the journal Science, are the result of a massive effort to quantify what lead author Wim Thiery calls the “intergenerational inequality” of climate change.

Drawing on multiple climate and demographic models, Thiery and 36 colleagues compared the risks faced by previous generations to the number of extreme events today’s children will witness in their lifetimes. Unless world leaders agree on more ambitious policies when they meet for the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, this fall, the study says, today’s children will be exposed to an average of five times more disasters than if they lived 150 years ago.

The changes are especially dramatic in developing nations; 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.

The disparities underscore how the worst effects of climate change will be experienced in places that contributed least to warming, by people who have had little say in the policies that allow continued emissions to occur, Thiery said. More than half of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were generated after 1990, meaning that most of the disasters today’s children will experience can be linked to emissions produced during their parents’ lifetimes.

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“Young people are being hit by climate crisis but are not in position to make decisions,” he said. “While the people who can make the change happen will not face the consequences.”

Aggressive efforts to curb fossil fuel use and other planet-warming activities can still dramatically improve the outlook for today’s children, he added. If people manage to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, newborns’ risk of extreme heat exposure will fall almost by half. They could see 11 percent fewer crop failures, 27 percent fewer droughts and almost a third as many river floods than if emissions continue unabated.

People who never considered themselves at risk from climate change are waking up to floods and fires. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

But the world is nowhere near meeting that 1.5 degree target. A U.N. report published earlier this month warned that, based on countries’ current climate pledges, greenhouse gas emissions could actually increase by 16 percent 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.

This makes Adriana angry. The Woodbridge, Va., first-grader already worries about the wildfires in California, where her half brother lives. She has heard about islands being inundated by rising seas, caught glimpses of hurricanes and droughts on the news.

Meanwhile, adults “don’t listen, and they keep doing it and keep making the Earth hotter” she added. “Everything will keep getting worse and worse until I grow up. Somebody has to do something.”

The Science paper was partly inspired by Thiery’s three sons, who are 7, 5 and 2. But its implications are not restricted to children. Anyone under 40, he said, is destined to live a life of unprecedented disaster exposure, experiencing rates of extreme events that would have just a 1 in 10,000 chance of happening in a preindustrial world.

“It used to be a story of, like, ‘yeah we have to limit global warming because of grandchildren,’ ” he said. “This study is making clear that climate change has arrived. It’s everywhere.”

The numbers provided in the study are almost certainly an underestimate, said co-author Joeri Rogelj, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. Data limitations, and the complexity of the analysis, meant the scientists didn’t assess the increased risk of some hazards, such as coastal flooding from sea level rise. The study also doesn’t take into account the increased severity of many events; it only looks at frequency.

On the other hand, he noted, countries also have a chance to adapt to the changes that are coming. If the world invests in making communities safer — for example, installing flood barriers, adopting fire-safe building codes, providing shelter for people at risk from deadly heat — disasters don’t have to be as destructive for future generations as they are for people today.

“Our aim is for this not to be the conclusion of this debate,” Rogelj said, “but for this to be the start of looking at the lived experience of children being born today.”

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Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who was not involved in the new research, called it a “robust study” based on established findings from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a scientist, Cobb said, she was unsurprised by the results.

But Cobb is also a mother to four children. Reading the report through that lens, she said, “it brings into sharp focus what so many economic models of climate change impacts fail to capture — the vast toll of human suffering that is hanging in the balance with our emissions choices this decade.”

She added: “The moral weight of this moment is almost unbearable.”

In a report published in conjunction with Thiery’s findings, Save the Children International called on world leaders to make the changes necessary to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target. Wealthy nations must also follow through on their unmet pledge to give $100 billion per year to help low-income countries curb their own emissions and adapt to changes that are already underway, the group said.

Yolande Wright, who directs the nonprofit’s climate efforts, also hopes the findings will bolster legal efforts to force climate action on behalf of children. Last year, a federal appeals court threw out a case brought by 21 American young people who argued that the government’s failure to act on climate change was a violation of their rights. Similar cases have been filed in Portugal, Peru and elsewhere.

“Now that we can really quantify how a child in their lifetime will see so many more of these extreme events … it helps make the case,” Wright said.

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Environmental attorney Dan Galpern, general counsel and director of Climate Protection and Restoration Initiative, agreed that “anticipatory research” like this can help establish governments’ and corporations’ liability for real harms experienced by kids.

Young people already say climate change has touched their lives and harmed their mental health. In a recent survey of 16- to 25-year-olds, scientists found that three quarters of respondents feared the future and more than half believed they would have less opportunity than their parents. Nearly 60 percent said their governments had betrayed them and future generations — making them feel even more anxious.

“The future for me and everyone who comes after is so insecure,” said Emanuel Smari Nielsen, a 14-year-old climate activist from Norway. “When politicians and those with power do not do anything, it makes me feel tired. It almost makes me angry.”

Adriana, the 6-year-old, said she feels “super nervous” when she thinks about what the future might hold. In those moments, there’s nothing that helps her feel better.

“I just wait till I’m done thinking about it,” she said.

Experts say one way to help children cope with climate anxiety is to help them feel empowered to do something about it. The Save the Children report calls for communities, countries and global institutions like the U.N. to give young people a greater role in setting climate policy.

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Cormac Buck, an 8-year-old from Savannah, Ga., has decided to stop eating meat (except for the occasional chicken nugget). He is part of a group of kids at his school who have asked teachers and administrators to use fewer fossil fuels.

“Sometimes I hear some depressing things happening, like some animals because of climate change are really close to extinction … and I feel sad,” he said. “And then I normally try to think of a way to stop that from happening again.”

And adults must earn back children’s trust, Thiery said, by making the dramatic emissions reductions that have been so long delayed. Our choices now will determine whether kids grow up in a world with four times as many heat waves or seven times as many heat waves, a world with occasional crop failures or chronic food shortages.

“We can still avoid the worst consequences,” he said. “That is what gives me strength as a father. … Their future is in our hands.”

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