Climate change report warns: The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected


TORONTO -- Climate change will risk the health of babies born today in Canada and around the world throughout their lifetimes, a new report warns.

“Climate change is affecting the health of children all the way across the world, every single child, today,” Nick Watts, an Australian doctor who is one of the lead authors on the report, told CTV’s Your Morning Thursday.

“It’s not something that affects us in 2100; it’s something that affects us the 14th of November, 2019.”

Canadian children will face sharply increased risks of wildfire and asthma, floods, allergies, tick-borne diseases, extreme heat, and displacement due to erosion, according to the report, published Wednesday in medical journal The Lancet. It points to a 3.5 times increase in exposure to wildfire in Canada over the last two decades and a decrease in crop yield potential of 14 per cent.

The number of Canadians exposed directly to wildfire averaged 35,300 between 2001 and 2004, but 54,100 between 2015 and 2018. That number does not include those exposed to wildfire smoke, which adds to the cardiovascular risks and lung diseases.

Between 1980 and 2017, 448,444 Canadians were forced to leave their homes because of wildfires, but more than half of those evacuations occurred after 2010.

The cumulative effects of climate change will put children’s overall health and nutrition at risk, says Watt, who is executive director of the Lancet Countdown project. The annual report is a collaboration of 35 institutions scattered across every continent.

"The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change," the report says. "Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives."

A warmer world means more malnutrition and rising food prices, as well as the political strife that comes with mass migration as some parts of the world become uninhabitable.

Hotter climates are also conducive for the transmission of disease. Nine of the 10 most suitable years for the transmission of dengue fever have occurred since 2000. The number of days suitable for the spread of a pathogen that causes diarrhea has doubled since 1980. In Canada, Lyme-infested ticks are marching their way north.

Dr. Courtney Howard, a Yellowknife-based emergency doctor who helped pen the Canadian briefing document out of the main report, said pushing the world to do more to slow global warming is critical because, after a certain point, we won't be able to adapt to the impacts. But she said there also needs to be more work done to adapt to the impacts we are already seeing.

For example, she notes, the hospital in Fort McMurray, Alta., had to evacuate in a matter of hours when massive wildfires tore through the city in 2017. But most hospitals, including her own, have no plan to respond to similar circumstances.

"Do we know how to evacuate in a hurry?" she asked. "It's not something we covered in my emergency-medicine training, but it's certainly something we need to cover now."

During fires, most people are advised to stay indoors, but she said that advice was developed when a fire lasted only a few days. In 2017, some regions saw that advice daily for more than two months, which meant isolation that brought on unexpected mental-health problems. Also, she said, smoke will eventually penetrate a home exposed to it for days on end.

Adapting buildings to have better ventilation systems and preparing communities for the trauma of evacuations are also key, Howard said.

“It is so important that we remember that there are sensible, cost-effective things that we can do to respond to climate change that are just good for public health,” said Watt. “And that’s what the Paris Agreement focuses on. It focuses on the phase out of coal-fired power and what that does to clean up our air.”

The Lancet report says fossil fuel use contributes to air pollution, which caused 2.9 million premature deaths globally in 2016.

Achieving the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5 C could allow a child born today to see a world that reaches net-zero emissions by their 31st birthday, the report finds.

Another major step, says Watt, is redesigning cities around people, rather than around cars, “so that we create safe environments where children can go out and play.”

While reaching the targets of the Paris Agreement are crucial, Watts says parents should also be ensuring their children get plenty of physical activity and that their families are making a shift to a more plant-based diet that has a lower carbon footprint and also reduces heart disease and some forms of cancer.