WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission report calls for amplifying children’s voices in climate discussions and decision-making efforts.
March 17, 2020
Speaking at the United Nations in New York in September, 15-year-old Autumn Peltier said, “I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: We can’t eat money, or drink oil.” At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, 17-year-old Ayakha Melithafa said, “We can’t leave youth out of the conversation any longer.” Also at the World Economic Forum, 24-year-old Gary Bencheghib said, “There are 500 times more pieces of plastic in our ocean than there are stars in our galaxy.”
They have been called change-makers, youth-voice amplifiers, and eco-brats. However they are labeled, during the past few years, more and more young people have been speaking up at global forums, organizing school strikes for climate action, and generally raising the alarm on climate change. Now, a new report in The Lancet illuminates the impact of climate change on child health now and in the future, and calls for a shift in policy and practice: On matters of public importance like climate change, children should be seen and heard.
“Children’s voices remind us that we have no choice but to act,” says co-author Sarah Dalglish, a researcher at John Hopkins School of Public Health.
The ambitious report lays out the critical challenges today’s children face — including “climate change, ecological degradation, migrating populations, conflict, pervasive inequalities, and predatory commercial practices” — and calls for major environmental, social, and political changes to address these issues and put childhood health and wellbeing at the center of sustainable development policies. In what some may call a manifesto, “A Future for the World’s Children?”, produced by a joint commission made up of researchers working on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and The Lancet, includes a roadmap for improvement and accountability in this regard. What’s more, it calls for decision-makers to incorporate the perspectives and concerns of kids across the world in policy-making.
The Lancet, an international weekly medical journal started in 1823, has made the case before that we need to take action to save the planet. In 2014, the journal published “From Public to Planetary Health: A Manifesto,” a one-page document pointing out the damages done by greenhouse gas emissions, the unsustainable practices of overconsumption, and the threats to health and security of the world’s peoples.
By teaming up with WHO and UNICEF, both of which were developed after World War II to address the global nature of health and human problems, for this latest report, The Lancet draws upon the depth of expertise in both organizations, as well as their work with and on behalf of struggling communities around the world. This on-the-ground network comes through in the report — in one feature the writers gather information from focus groups for children between the ages of 6 and 18 in four countries. Participants were drawn from poor neighborhoods in cities in Lebanon and Argentina, indigenous Maori communities in rural New Zealand, and higher income areas in Nigeria. Because the welfare and satisfaction of youth can be read as indications of a planet’s health, the writers present their focus group findings as one of many examples of how to begin to collaborate with children.
By finding ways to incorporate the voices of young people into policy discussions and decision-making processes, the report argues that we see more deeply what children fear and what they value. We get a picture of their local environments — the way garbage, pollution, or lack of outdoor places to play — impact their day-to-day lives. We see what brings them joy: As one child in Tyre, Lebanon, said in a focus group: “When other people are happy, we are happy.” Most importantly, we begin to foster an ethic of inclusion, that gives agency to those who have been rendered powerless during a time of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
While the future may seem bleak, and the challenge of addressing climate change incredibly large, the report urges that youth must be given space to participate in what lies ahead. “Children and adolescents have a lot to contribute,” says Dalglish. “We need to find new ways to systematically gather their input, not in a tokenistic way, but to really listen to what they have to say and let them participate as the citizens that they are.”
In the same issue of The Lancet, two youth advocates lend their support to the report’s child-centered approach. During the first year of her life, Grace Gatera’s family moved from Rwanda to Uganda, fleeing ethnic violence. Gabriela Pavarini grew up in Brazil and is now a post-doctoral researcher in the psychology department at the University of Oxford. Both participated in The Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health. They argue: “Integrating young people into decision making contributes to a more cohesive and egalitarian society, catalyzing our ability to create a sustainable and healthy future.”
“By fostering a culture of connectedness and mutual respect,” Gatera and Pavarini claim, “we meet children’s needs for self-esteem and confidence and strengthen their ability to make a difference.”
This is all the more important given that children will soon navigate a future that bears no relation to the one their parents had imagined for them, says Jon Rosales, a professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University, who is unaffiliated with the report.
For example, “What if we’re all migrating?” Rosales asks. The report notes that in 2018 “40 million people [were] displaced by conflict, natural disasters, or climate change.” Charting a rise in migration and instability, the authors foresee further increases in migration as “the planet is remade by the effects of climate change.”
One way to respond to threats and problems is through wide-spread data collection; using the very means many of the student strikers for the climate used to organize — social messaging. In 2011, UNICEF launched U-Report, a global platform for gathering opinions, that then can be analyzed and shared with policy-makers.
While tools like U-Report tap into the collective outlooks of many, the authors of the report also put forth a ranking system to compare countries around the world. Their new global index looks at “how children flourish today, but also how countries’ greenhouse gas emissions are destroying their future.” By pitting measures of the way in which countries are supporting their children in terms of health care, education, and reproductive freedom, side by side with figures related to greenhouse gas emissions, the authors hope to illustrate how the “ecological damage unleashed today endangers the future of children’s lives on our planet, their only home.”
The United States offers an example. Out of 180 countries and territories included in the report, the United States ranks 39 in terms of child flourishing. But when it comes to sustainability — based on emissions levels — the US ranks 173. As the report notes, the US currently exceeds carbon dioxide emissions targets set for 2030, as agreed on at a meeting of the world’s countries to discuss Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, by 500 percent. By failing when it comes to reducing emissions, the US is undermining the health not only of American children but of those impacted by rising temperatures around the world.
That includes the children who have the most to lose due to climate disruption, those living in dusty rural areas or make-shift communities in poor urban centers. The WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission has created a framework for bringing them into the conversation and putting them at the center with data-driven accountability mechanisms. As 23-year-old school climate activist, Lisa Neubauer said in a TEDx Youth event in Munich in July, “This is not a job for a single generation. This is a job for humanity.”