Indigenous cultures across the world had integrated themselves into the larger scheme of things and had adopted sustainable ways of living in tune with nature. However, with modernisation and industrialisation taking over, the environment and habitats have been destroyed to make way for human needs as well as greed. Environmental issues such as global warming, climate change, ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, soil degradation, deforestation, etc. impact not just humans but all creatures. To tackle these burning issues, all countries have framed environmental laws; these laws predominantly deal with controlling pollution of all kinds, waste management and disposal, usage of chemicals, reforestation and land use, safety, and sustainability.
While these laws focus on the natural aspects of environmental damage, there are other human and social aspects that need to be dealt with as well, such as human rights, child rights, malnutrition, etc. And one of the most important areas that demand immediate attention is child rights; as children today have inherited an environment that has been severely abused and degraded. This has had a ripple effect, particularly in developing countries where resources are scarce. Life then becomes a struggle – a struggle to access societal and health benefits as well as natural resources. This article explores the laws on climate change and its connection with children’s rights from an international perspective.
Climate change and its impact on children
Climate change impacts children disproportionately because their physiology, immune system, and metabolism are still developing. Changes in the environment and pollution have been known to cause several diseases like malaria, dengue, zika, various viral infections, and psychological trauma among children. The impact of these changes is briefly explained below:
1. Climatic changes leading to natural disasters
Natural disasters like floods, droughts, cyclones, landslides disrupt life in more ways than one; and for children, the damage is not just in terms of health but also a loss of a decent life and livelihood. Such calamities destroy health, education, housing, and other social structures, forcing children to live in abysmal hygiene conditions. The loss of families to care for them is an added distress. These disasters invariably lead to scarcity in food and drinking water, in turn leading to underdevelopment, cognitive impairment, loss of immunity, diseases, malnutrition, and eventually death. Moreover, such children become more vulnerable to abuse like child trafficking, child labour, domestic violence, and other forms of exploitation.
As per reports of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), by 2030, more than 7.5 million children under the age of 5 would be severely stunted. The fact that more than half a billion children live in zones that have high exposure to occurrences of floods, cyclones, rising sea levels makes it all the more disturbing!
2. Environmental pollution and diseases
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 3.2 million children under the age of 5 die because of drinking polluted water. And water-borne diseases are typically known to spread rapidly after a natural calamity. Cholera, diarrhea, malaria, viral infections have claimed several lives across the world, and the most vulnerable are countries that are still developing.
Apart from water pollution, toxic air, largely caused by industrialisation and carbon emissions, is leading to various diseases like asthma, allergic respiratory disorders, brain damage, etc. A report by UNICEF has estimated that about 300 million children breathe toxic air. Additionally, exposure to high levels of noise and glaring billboards and neon lights in cities is also known to have adverse effects on the growth of the child.
3. Mental health
Climate change is not all physical; it leads to a complete collapse of all social structures and health, brings forth several diseases, death and loss. This invariably impacts children psychologically, especially, in cases where children lose their family members. It is only natural that conditions like anxiety, post-traumatic disorders increase in children who have survived such disasters. Additionally, in cases of displacement and separation from their traditional lands, children also experience a loss of culture, cultural identity, and support systems.
4. Impact on girl children
As far as girl children are concerned, their exposure to social threats is higher as they are more vulnerable to child marriage, violence, sexual exploitation, and forced drop-out from schools. Additionally, they are also exposed to reproductive health issues due to a lack of basic sanitation and unhygienic conditions.
International laws relating to climate change
In order to tackle these pressing issues relating to climate change, governments across the world have collectively pledged to work towards reducing climate change and its aftereffects. A number of treaties have been ratified in this regard; some of the prominent ones are given below:
1. The Montreal Protocol, 1987
Though the objective of this treaty was not to combat global warming or climate change, it is a landmark in itself and has been ratified by almost all countries. The protocol deals with reducing the usage of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that lead to the depletion of the ozone layer, thereby keeping the climatic conditions in check.
2. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992
This convention is critical as it is the very first framework that deals exclusively with climate change. The primary focus of this convention was to reduce the use of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; it laid a foundation for future conversations and treaties on climate change.
3. The Kyoto Protocol, 1997
The protocol came into effect in 2005. It essentially required developed countries to reduce carbon emissions but did not require the developing nations to do so. What makes this protocol significant is that it was the first treaty that was legally binding on the signatories.
4. The Paris Agreement, 2015
The Paris Agreement mandates all signatory countries to reduce greenhouse emissions. The goal of the governments is to prevent the global temperature from rising 2oC and to ensure that it stays below 1.5oC.
As a part of the implementation of the Paris Agreement, various conferences have been held at Marrakesh in 2016, Bonn in 2017, Katowice in 2018, and Madrid in 2019. The conference at Madrid is of particular importance as it involved the signing of a Declaration on Children, Youth, and Climate action.
Though various efforts are being made, reports suggest that the climate emergency seems to be worsening and there is a pressing need to address these issues in more ways than one. Countering climate change is the first step towards ensuring a safer, healthier environment, life, and standards of living for children.
International laws relating to children’s rights
With a view to providing children with the dignity of life and fundamental human rights, a Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was convened by the UNO in 1990. The CRC is one of the most widely ratified Human Rights Treaties and forms the basis of the activities of UNICEF. The treaty has been ratified by more than 193 governments. However, it does not deal specifically with climate change. What is interesting though is that it deals with various aspects of child rights which have a direct or indirect correlation with the impact of climate changes on children. The treaty which provides principles for the treatment of children worldwide, inter-alia includes the following critical provisions and how they correlate with climate change:
- Article 2 – Right to non-discrimination
- Article 3 – Focusing on the best interests of the child
- Article 4 – Protection of rights of the child
- Article 6 – Right to life, survival, and development
- Article 8 – Right to nationality and identity
- Articles 12-15 – Right to freedom of thought, expression, and association
- Articles 20-22 – State protection in case of displacement or separation from family and refugee protection
- Article 24 – Right to highest attainable standards of health
- Article 26 – Right to social security and protection
- Article 27 – Right to adequate standard of living
- Article 28 – Right to education
- Article 30 – Right to indigenous culture, ethnicity, and language
- Articles 34-36 – Right to protection from exploitation
The rights enumerated above are interrelated and need to be upheld in connection with each other. Climate change, as explained earlier, is harsher on children than adults due to their physiology. Additionally, children from developing countries, children living in areas that are more prone to natural calamities, children from lower strata of the society are more vulnerable to the effects of climate changes. This essentially means that children’s rights should be sustained and treated on par with other human rights, moreover, all actions taken in this regard should be done in the best interests of the child.
However, the most fundamental right for any human and child is the right to life and survival. Natural calamities cause humongous damage to both life and property, and children are the worst impacted in this regard as they lose their right to basic amenities, livelihood, and education as well.
Hence, a right to education, and freedom of thought and expression is very critical in the development of a child. And development remains incomplete without ensuring adequate health and hygiene for children affected by such disasters. More often than not, climate-induced calamities open children to a host of diseases as well, making the provision of health a primary necessity. Likewise, the right to social security measures that provide them access to health, education, employment, and other facilities needs to be ensured.
Children who are affected also often lose their families to calamity or may be separated from their families. They may also be displaced from their nations and end up as refugees in other countries. Apart from social changes, loss of social networks, and political autonomy, these lead to a dramatic shift in culture, and often, there is an apathy towards traditional cultures practiced by displaced children. The right to culture and language and the right to nationality need to be upheld as culture is not just about rituals, but forms a major part of a child’s identity, which needs to be respected. This, in fact, is another basic right as identity is as important as life.
With large-scale displacement, bereavement from families, and lack of governmental support, children become exposed to various forms of exploitation and abuse like forced child labour, sexual exploitation, forced migration. Adequate protection has to be provided in this regard. Hence, granting and protection of child rights need to be made a priority as these are severely affected because of climate-induced changes.
Responsibilities of the states and adopting a children’s rights approach
The Convention on Child Rights can act as a catalyst for the protection of children against climate change. Some of the reasons are:
- Many countries/governments are signatories to the CRC and have specific duties therein,
- Monitoring mechanisms have been mandated, which enhance the accountability of the States,
- The CRC policy also indirectly helps in fighting the cause of climate change.
The real value of the CRC lies in not merely State representations and action, children, who are the real beneficiaries of the convention need to be made part of the process. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has prescribed some principles that facilitate a child rights-based approach to climate change, which is briefly given below:
- All climate policies should be formulated so as to ensure human rights in general and child rights in specific keeping in mind the specific vulnerabilities of children. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be taken as the guiding principle in this regard.
- Children should be involved in policy and decision-making.
- Clearly define the role of the States and other authorities.
- Additionally, educational, health and other security policies need to be reframed in accordance with the convention. Disaster prevention and reduction need to be prioritised.
Children are the future of the world, and protecting their rights and providing them with safe, hygienic conditions and a pure environment is a duty of not just governments but also individuals. Climate changes adversely affect children the most, and it is only fair that children are given a voice in decisions that directly affect them. Creating a cohesive environment where children can express themselves involves systemic changes with respect to health and safety, education, etc., and sensitisation of children towards the causes of climate change and its devastating impact on the whole of their lives. With this awareness, children can drive change towards a better future; a case in point is Greta Thunberg, who has championed the cause of environment preservation and has also participated with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to make governments more accountable towards climate issues. Such initiatives can go a long way in granting children their well-deserved rights.
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