An Indonesian woman walks amid haze-producing wildfires in Sumatra, Indonesia, September 14, 2019. Photo: Twitter

Today, November 20, is Universal Children’s Day, a day for us to celebrate, promote and advocate for children’s rights. Our leaders will hold ceremonies, give speeches and snap photos next to children and youth. But this will be nothing more than a show. Our collective failure to address climate change means we are abandoning our children and sacrificing their future.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is failing when it comes to reducing haze and disinvesting from coal, therefore contributing to environmental degradation and climate change. By doing so, ASEAN is also failing its children.

Children are most affected by climate change. According to the World Health Organization, more than 88% of the diseases caused by climate change are experienced by children under five. Children’s bodies predispose them to these impacts. Their immature immune systems mean that they rely heavily on clean water. Their love for playing outside makes them rely more than you and me for clean air. Air and water are both already affected by climate change.

Climate change is also putting children at greater risk of human trafficking. As seen in the Philippines in the aftermath of disasters, lawlessness, desperation, and lack of access to basic supplies facilitate criminal networks. Young girls in particular are at risk in these situations as they can be trafficked for prostitution or sold for food and scarce aid supplies. With climate change, instances of natural disasters will become more frequent.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 88% of the diseases caused by climate change are experienced by children under five

Indigenous children are even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of their higher dependence on natural resources, their location in remote areas and their already marginalized situation within society. But don’t take my word for it. Ask the children themselves. Indigenous children in the Philippines report that environmental degradation and climate change are two of their major concerns.

Less obvious is the fact that every year, the Southeast Asian haze crisis leads to the temporary closure of schools in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Haze is not only contributing heavily to greenhouse-gas emissions and causing immediate health risks; it is causing children to lose out on their education.

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report on keeping global warming at less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It was a wake-up call to the world that the window for avoiding runaway climate change is closing – fast.

To have any chance of staying under 1.5 degrees of warming, we need to keep fossil-fuel reserves in the ground. That means stopping all new coal, oil and gas infrastructure, and banning future fossil-fuel projects, accelerating the shift to a new, just, clean-energy economy that works for everyone by supporting community-led energy solutions. However, according to the Climate Action Tracker, the contribution of ASEAN states such as Indonesia and Singapore to the global effort to keep the rising of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees are still highly insufficient.

ASEAN is still far from fulfilling the global recommendation to drop coal as a source of power. In 2018, Southeast Asia was the only region where the share of power produced by coal increased, and it was the “worst performing region” in terms of renewable-energy development.

Recently, UN Secretary General António Guterres said no new coal plants should be built after 2020. Yet Indonesia is currently doing the exact opposite and building its largest coal power plant in Batang, Central Java.

The future looks bleak for all of our children. But this is preventable if the nations of the world, including ASEAN countries, step up their commitments to stabilize the increase in the world’s temperatures.

Climate leadership is currently coming from people on the frontlines of the climate crisis, compelling governments to ramp up the level of action that the crisis demands. If on Universal Children’s Day ASEAN leaders truly want to celebrate our young, they should take immediate steps to address the haze and coal crises, and increase their contributions to the global efforts on climate change.

What we are witnessing is intergenerational injustice: not only injustice in who is affected, but injustice in who is fighting. It’s the children of today who are putting their childhoods aside to rectify our failed policies across the region, and to take their future into their own hands.

Children in ASEAN are taking part in climate strikes. In Thailand, 12-year-old Ralyn Satidtanasarn, or Lilly, has inspired many in her fight both against plastic pollution and climate change. As she puts it: “When adults do not do anything, it’s up to us children to act.”

These children have made the brave decision to put their education on hold in order to ensure a brighter future for the youth of ASEAN. It is ironic that the youth have to be the ones to teach governments and corporations how to act on the climate crisis. Young people must not be seen as just victims of climate change but as agents of change. They are taking to the streets because far too little has been done to secure our future. They have taken matters into their own hands; we should not let them down.

As inspiring as these children are, policymakers cannot stand by and let them fight on their own. We must ensure that we enable youth to raise their concerns, and to have a say on climate policies. This existential battle can only be won if the world makes the difficult yet necessary decisions needed to secure our ability to survive in harmony with our planet through future generations.

These children fighting for their health and future are role models for the climate. Can ASEAN be that too?

Sarah Jane Elago is the youngest female legislator in the 18th Congress of the Philippines. She serves in the House of Representatives as a member of the Kabataan Party, a youth sectoral party and grassroots organization that aims to inspire, organize and mobilize youth to advocate for their democratic rights and welfare. She is a member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

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