Climate crisis and rights of the child

Save those who have been termed ‘climate deniers,’ it is generally acknowledged that the climate crisis is a threat that demands immediate and sweeping action. The recent report put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the ‘code red for humanity’ is a big red flag. The facts are before everyone to see: atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was higher in 2019 than in the previous two million years, sea levels have risen far faster since 1900 than in the last 3,000 years and the global Ocean temperature has warmed faster over the last century than it has since the last deglacial transition approximately 11,000 years ago, and much more.

Given the severity of the situation, the State must ensure that it makes decisions with long term effects on climate in mind and in particular with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration. The child’s participation would be encouraged by suitable education and support to tackle local and global challenges, including climate change and environmental degradation.

The climate crisis has a wide-ranging and far-reaching impact on humankind generally, but it has a disproportionate impact on certain groups, notably children.  The recent report published by UNICEF looking at the climate crisis from the lens of child rights, is one such attempt to study the impact on children.

Introducing CCRI

A new concept called the Children's Climate Risk Index (CCRI) has been introduced, which “uses data to generate new global evidence on how many children are currently exposed to climate and environmental hazards, shocks and stresses.” Across two categories, the CCRI brings 57 variables together to measure risk across 163 countries, minus a few for which there was no data available and a number of Small Island Developing Nations (those with areas less than 20,000 km sq).

It functions on two pillars – one, exposure to climate and environmental hazards, shocks and stresses, and two, child vulnerability.  Under the second pillar, it examines vulnerability and coping capacity with respect to the rights outlined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). The climate crisis, as one would expect, is giving birth to a multi-pronged child rights crisis, of unprecedented proportions.

State’s Responsibility and Related Issues   

The child’s rights, according to the CRC, is primarily the responsibility of the State which is the chief protector of child rights and must fulfill its obligations under the convention. Given the severity of the situation, the State must ensure that it makes decisions with long term effects on climate in mind and in particular with the best interests of the child as a primary consideration. The Committee has specified that “environmental interventions should, inter alia, address climate change, as this is one of the biggest threats to children’s health and exacerbates health disparities. States should, therefore, put children’s health concerns at the centre of their climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.” The child’s participation would be encouraged by suitable education and support to tackle local and global challenges, including climate change and environmental degradation.

CCRI places India among the 33 extremely high-risk countries with repeated flooding and air pollution leading to adverse socio-economic consequences for women and children.

Although this sounds promising, there are a number of problems. Like many other international instruments, it lacks a proper enforcement mechanism. It doesn't, on its own, provide a mechanism that enforces compliance (as do some human rights treaties). It has therefore, near complete dependence on national legal means, that is, its conversion into national laws and legal processes. And so, the process of monitoring, by a group of 18 experts elected by the UN, and the report they issue every five years is somewhat ineffectual. As sociologist Manfred Liebel says in “Children’s Rights from Below Cross-Cultural Perspectives”,  his book published in 2012 on the social reality of children’s rights, “To date, the efficacy of the recommendations has not been researched empirically, but it is evident that they are frequently ignored, arbitrarily interpreted or, at best, selectively acted upon.” Another issue with child rights, that is particularly highlighted in the context of environmental conservation, is the disconnect between the rights-holder and the moral agent, that is, the child and the ‘person’ authorised to take decisions.

Focus: India

India signed the convention in 1992 and has since made strides in the realisation of these rights. However, it is pertinent to mention that under the Sustainable Development Goals, India has slipped in rankings and significant challenges remain, with stagnating growth under SDG 5 (gender equality) and challenges under SDG 4 (quality education) and many others as well.  Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India are among four South Asian countries where children are at an extremely high risk of the impacts of the climate crisis. In the words of Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Representative to India, “Climate change is a child rights crisis”. CCRI data has flagged the serious deprivations faced by children due to the ill effects of climate change on the existing inadequate access to water and sanitation, healthcare and education.

More than 600 million Indians will face 'acute water shortages' in the coming years, while at the same time flash flooding is expected to increase significantly in a majority of India's urban areas once the global temperature increase rises above 2° C.

CCRI places India among the 33 extremely high-risk countries with repeated flooding and air pollution leading to adverse socio-economic consequences for women and children. Nearly one billion children live in one of the 33 countries classified as “extremely high-risk”, including the four South Asian countries.

More than 600 million Indians will face 'acute water shortages' in the coming years, while at the same time flash flooding is expected to increase significantly in a majority of India's urban areas once the global temperature increase rises above 2° C. With India having the largest adolescent population in the world, the challenges that have been highlighted by way of this report, are only magnified further.

How do we secure the future of our children? How do we bring about disruption and displacement in the right direction?

The CCRI, while laudable for being the first child-centric environmental risk index, and also for the improved technology it has used to provide more detailed and essential information, has the problem of being just a report. This may be an alarmist perspective, but given the striking facts of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, and the effects of the climate crisis, visible before our very own eyes, do we have time for the usual conventional understanding of and approach to environmentalism.

Clearly not, so what does the future hold? How do we secure the future of our children? How do we bring about disruption and displacement in the right direction?

(The writer is an author/editor of three books, two short story collections and most recently, the editor of “India's Long Walk Home”, a collection focused on the environment and, the pandemic, for charity)