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This article was written by Laurie Maher. From Wicklow, Ireland, Laurie is currently a master’s student in the International Human Rights Law programme at Lund University. She graduated with an LLB in Law and French from Trinity College Dublin, including a one year at Sciences Po, Paris. Her areas of interest include climate change, cultural and refugee rights.
World Children’s Day is celebrated on 20th November every year to promote children’s welfare, awareness and international togetherness. First celebrated in 1954, the date of 20th November has become significant as it was the date in 1959 when the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN General Assembly. It was also the date on which the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the Assembly in 1989. The day aims to promote and celebrate children’s rights and to prioritise their participation – children are given the opportunity to take over roles in media, politics and entertainment to highlight the issues that are important to them.
The theme of this year’s World Children’s Day is, ‘for every child, every right.’ UNICEF has identified three focus areas within this; peace, a liveable planet and children’s voice. This article will focus on the second strand, a liveable planet, as climate change and the impact it has on children’s rights is undoubtedly one of the biggest issues facing children today.
Climate change as an issue for children’s rights
Children have contributed the least to climate change, yet they will be the ones to bear its consequences. There are over 2 billion children in the world, making them one of the largest groups to be affected by climate change. Many of the countries in which the impacts of climate change are felt the most are countries which have the highest proportion of children amongst their population.
The protection of children’s rights is ensured by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This Convention is founded on four pillars: the right to survival, the right to protection, the right to development and the right to participation. The intersection of climate change and children’s rights can be viewed through this lens.
The right to survival
Children have a right to life, including access to nutrition, safe water and a place to live. The physiological and cognitive needs of children make them uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Climate change related disasters and stresses can impact children more significantly than adults – they are less physically and mentally able to cope and are more likely to suffer injury. One such example is heatwaves; children cannot self-regulate their body temperature to the extent that adults can, therefore relying heavily on external regulation.
Children are also more likely to experience health-related issue due the impact of climate change on water and food security. Rising temperatures impact the incidence rate of water-borne diseases, such as malaria. In 2014 the World Health Organisation (WHO) predicted that by 2030 malaria will be the cause of an additional 60,000 deaths per year of children under the age of fifteen. Rising temperatures also increase the risk of drought and crop failure. UNICEF has found that malnutrition is the cause of almost half of the deaths of children under the age of five, and it also increases the risk of contracting infection and disease. The WHO has estimated that by 2030 there will be 95,000 additional deaths every year of children under the age of five as a result of malnutrition.
The right to development
Climate change also impacts children’s right to development. The right aims to ensure that children can reach their full potential, with opportunities for education and the development of physical and mental skills being integral parts of this.
Climate change can impact a child’s education. Climate disasters can lead to the destruction of schools and loss of opportunity. A loss of family income due to climate change related events can also be linked to reduced access to education – children are often removed from school to reduce financial burden or to assist with the generation of household income. Malnutrition as a result of climate change also impacts development, as a child’s cognitive and physical development can be stunted. This can impact their future health and capacity for educational and economic productivity.
The right to protection
Children have a right to protection from harm, including from child labour, exploitation and interference with their education. The financial impact of climate change can lead to greater risks of these violations of rights occurring. A Human Rights Watch study in Bangladesh found an increase in child marriages as a result of the financial implications of climate change. Additionally, climate change can be the cause of migration and internal displacement, and children are the most vulnerable in these circumstances.
The right to participation
Children have a right to participation, particularly regarding issues that affect them. Article 12 of the Convention states that children have the right to participate in the decision-making processes relevant for them, allowing them to have an influential role. Children have been exercising their right to participation before the courts (the recent case of Duarte Agostinho and Others v. Portugal and 31 Other States is one such example), however, the involvement of children in the discussions, debates and decisions about tackling climate change has been limited. Recent developments may illustrate some positive change in this regard.
In August of this year the Committee on the Rights of the Child issued ‘General Comment 26 on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change’. It explicitly addresses the issue of climate change and emphasises that children have the right to a clean, healthy environment, as well as reiterating children’s rights to survival and development. It also specifies the obligations of States to protect children’s rights from immediate and future harm, and that States can be accountable for environmental harm.
This comes as significant development, not only in terms of the obligations of States but also in the role that children played in the development of this guidance. As well as two rounds of consultations with states, international organisations, experts and civil society, the Committee on the Rights of the Child received 16,331 contributions from children in 121 countries describing the impact of climate change on their lives.
Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing children on this World Children’s Day. It is a positive development that children’s participation is beginning to be given more weight in the decision-making process, however, the progress that has been made in recent years in the developments of children’s rights will be undermined if climate change is not effectively dealt with.
Amnesty International, ‘Global: States must safeguard children’s rights from climate change and environmental damage – UN committee’ (29 August 2023) https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/08/global-states-must-safeguard-childrens-rights-from-climate-change-and-environmental-damage-un-committee/
Amnesty International, ‘Europe: Six young people to present landmark climate case before the European Court of Human Rights’ (26 September 2023)
Committee on the Rights of the Child General comment No. 26 (2023) on children’s rights and the environment, with a special focus on climate change CRC/C/GC/26 https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/general-comments-and-recommendations/crccgc26-general-comment-no-26-2023-childrens-rights
Human Rights Watch, ‘Marry Before your House is Swept Away: Child Marriage in Bangladesh’(2016) https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/bangladesh0615_web.pdf
OCHR, ‘The Global Climate Crisis: A Child Rights Crisis’ (November 2019) https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/WorldVisionInputs2.pdf
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Analytical study on the relationship between climate change and the full and effective enjoyment of the rights of the child’ (4 May 2017) A/HRC/35/13
UN News, ‘New UN guidance affirms children’s right to a clean, healthy environment’ (28 August 2023) https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/08/1140122
UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of the Child (20 November 1989) E/CN.4/RES/1990/74
UNICEF, ‘Child Malnutrition’(May 2023) https://data.unicef.org/topic/nutrition/malnutrition/
UNICEF, ‘No Place To Call Home: Protecting children’s rights when the changing climate forces them to flee’ https://www.unicef.org.uk/publications/no-place-to-call-home/
UNICEF, ‘World Children’s Day’ https://www.unicef.org/world-childrens-day
World Health Organisation, ‘Quantitative Risk Assessment of the Effects of Climate Change on Selected Causes of Death, 2030s and 2050s’ (18 September 2014) https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241507691