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‘Virtually every child’ to face frequent heat waves by 2050, UNICEF says

Children cool off in a water fountain in London this summer, which was one of the hottest on record. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
3 min

Catastrophic storms and unforgiving heat waves devastated many parts of the world this year, with Earth experiencing one of its hottest summers on record in 2022.

Now, a new report from UNICEF estimates that nearly all the world’s children — more than 2 billion — will be exposed to high heat-wave frequency by 2050. That is about 1.5 billion more children than are exposed now.

“The models tell us this is the case, as does empirical lived experience,” Lauren Gifford, a research scientist at the University of Arizona, said in response to the report.

She added, “Children now and children who haven’t been born yet are going to exist in the world in very different ways, and some of those ways we can’t even conceive yet.”

In the report, UNICEF defines high-frequency areas as those with an average of 4.5 more heat waves per year. It also estimates that “virtually every child on earth” will face more frequent heat waves, even if the world achieves a “low greenhouse gas emission scenario” of about 1.7 degrees Celsius of warming.

Across several parts of the world, the unrelenting heat has proved deadly for all age groups this past summer. Britain reported 3,271 excess deaths above the five-year average during government-issued heat health advisory periods between June and August, for example, while France recorded 13 percent more deaths in July and 11 percent more deaths in August compared with the same months in 2019.

Meanwhile, extreme heat has consistently been the United States’ deadliest weather event for at least the last 30 years, according to the National Weather Service. Last year, a study also found that Africa and Asia had the highest proportion of deaths caused by non-optimal hot and cold temperatures between 2000 and 2019.

What it’s like to toil in India’s dangerous, unrelenting heat

For children, heat waves pose an acute threat: Young children and infants are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, in part because their bodies cannot regulate temperature as effectively as adults. Children also lose fluid more quickly and are at a greater risk of heat stroke because they lack the judgment needed to taper their physical exertion or rehydrate.

“Children, especially young children, are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of extreme heat, which can cause severe dehydration, respiratory trouble and make them more vulnerable to other diseases,” Catherine Russell, UNICEF’s executive director, said in the report.

Extreme heat is also known to trigger symptoms in people with asthma, an ailment that affects about 6 million children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many American public schools do not have air conditioning because of cost burdens — about 41 percent of school districts nationwide need to update or replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said. Meanwhile, a 2020 study has found that hot classroom conditions are linked to reduced test scores and lowered learning, with a disproportionate impact on students of color.

“School is for many kids the respite from a hard life, and there are schools where you can’t sit and learn when it’s 100 degrees in the classroom or you can’t be in the building because they’re closing schools,” Gifford said.

She added: “Climate change is what we call a threat multiplier. It takes existing hazards and exacerbates them.”

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