Written by PhD student Megan Sherlock from SCENARIO DTP
Children, babies, and pregnant people are at risk of heat-related mortality and long-term health effects from heatwaves, COP28 experts warn.
Since the first World Climate Conference was held in 1979, scientists have warned us of the devastating consequences greenhouse gas emissions may have on our climate, particularly a warming planet. 2023 marks the hottest year on record, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), coming in at a whopping 1.4°C above pre-industrial levels. Vanessa Nakate, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, has warned that “as hot as this year has been […], it will likely be the coldest year of the rest of our lives”. It is now undeniable that we are well on our way to passing the global target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as included in the Paris Agreement.
1 in 4 children globally are currently exposed to high heatwave frequency, with this set to increase to virtually all children by 2050, regardless of the degree of warming we undergo. Kitty van der Heijden, Deputy Executive Director at UNICEF, discussed at the “From Most Vulnerable to Most Valuable” event on day 7 of COP28 how exposure to extreme temperatures has many direct negative health effects. These can include cardiovascular disease as well as exacerbating existing medical conditions like asthma. Indirect negative effects can be felt such as reduced access to food, safe drinking water, and education. As it is becoming less and less likely for us to halt temperature increase where it is, experts agree that the only way to save these children’s lives is to increase adaptation funding, providing financial support to the countries worst affected by heatwaves.
The negative effects of heatwaves on the young and old are well understood, but as indicated at COP28, less is known about the potential impacts prolonged exposure to extreme heat on the development of a foetus, and the person carrying it. Despite this knowledge gap, people around the world are already seeing the effects of extreme heat on pregnancy and births. When asked what the biggest problems for women and climate change were, indigenous Peruvian women speaking in “Contribution of Indigenous Women, traditional knowledge, territory and proposals in the face of the climate crisis” at COP28 highlighted the rise in pregnancy complications and premature births they had seen in their community.
Pregnant people, in similar way to young children, are more vulnerable to high temperatures as they are less able to thermoregulate, making them more susceptible to heatwaves. Exposure to extreme temperatures in the 1st trimester can cause congenital birth defects, whilst exposure in the 2nd or 3rd trimester can cause premature and stillbirths. Exposure at any point whilst pregnant can cause babies to be born with a low birth weight, making it difficult for them to eat, breathe or fight off infections, and leading to a range of behavioural and cognitive difficulties later in life.
How much of an effect warming will have also depends on where you live, as recent talks at COP28 from developing countries have emphasised. Continued warming will increase the severity and frequency of heatwaves worldwide, but particularly in colder Northern regions. Pregnant people in colder regions will also see a stronger association between temperatures and foetal health effects than warmer areas, as they have not experienced these higher temperatures as often. Warmer regions such as around the equator will see sustained extreme temperatures, exposing 50% of Asian and African children to these changes by 2050.
Allowing temperatures to continue to rise puts pregnant people and children at unnecessary risk. The inclusion of young people in COP28, culminating in the first “Youth and Climate” day in COP’s history, is the right path forward to preventing these devastating effects. But their presence alone is not enough. As Francisco Vera Manzanares, a COP28 Youth Representative, highlighted at the “From Most Vulnerable to Most Valuable” event, decisions made regarding the future at conferences like COP should consider and take seriously young people’s voices. For they are the ones truly affected by the consequences.