A child reacts to the camera while sitting on his father's back as they make their way in a flooded area in Bogra, Bangladesh, August 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
A child sits on his father's back as they make their way in a flooded area in Bogra, Bangladesh, on August 20, 2017. Rising sea levels and other problems blamed on climate change are affecting the region. Photo: Reuters / Mohammad Ponir Hossain

When children start suing governments for inaction on climate change, as they have in South Korea, Pakistan, India and several other countries, it’s time to sit up and take notice. 

The climate crisis is already a menace to countries battered by extreme weather events. But with much worse to come for future generations, it is also a child-rights crisis. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines children’s rights to survival. It explicitly mentions “the dangers and risks of environmental pollution,” including global heating.

But in the Asia-Pacific region, one that’s already the world’s most disaster-prone, home to three of the biggest carbon-emitting countries and 99 of the 100 most polluted cities, such rights are being flushed into a pit of toxic waste.

These rights are undermined by every new coal plant opened, every new hectare of forest burned, and every missed opportunity to rebuild the region’s currently stalled economies on cleaner, greener foundations.

There is a strong moral obligation on governments to take effective action to help minimize the effects of our unsustainable consumption of natural resources. But there is also growing recognition of governments’ legal obligations to do so. And our children had been making their voices heard. Until Covid-19.  

The global pandemic has shifted everyone’s attention and silenced much of the child- and youth-led buzz around the climate crisis that captured public attention last year. Though many young climate activists have remained engaged, our analysis of social media finds the number of public online conversations about climate, which steadily rose during 2019, declined sharply in 2020 when Covid-19 emerged.

Globally, public online discussions about climate between April and June this year plummeted by a staggering 70% compared with the same period last year. 

But although Covid-19 has knocked the climate crisis off the political agenda, it doesn’t mean it’s not a burning issue. If anything, it poses a far greater threat to humanity than Covid-19, and no vaccine can fix it. 

With their futures most at stake, children and youth must be heard and their needs integrated when governments address the climate emergency with the bold level of ambition required, but collectively lacking so far. 

Asia-Pacific governments must be at the forefront because they face the biggest human impacts of the climate crisis. This region is home to half the world’s population and two-thirds of its poor. Half of Asia’s urban population lives in low-lying coastal zones and floodplains, which are most at risk from rising sea levels and floods. 

This year, South Asia has already seen two severe cyclones within a month and is currently experiencing one of the deadliest monsoons in years. Some Pacific island nations including Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu risk being wiped out by just a 1-meter sea-level rise. In China’s coastal areas, 23 million people are at risk from a 1-meter rise in sea level. For East Asia as a whole, that figure jumps to 40 million.   

Scientists are warning that our destruction of nature is heightening pandemic risks. Studies show that pandemics caused by viruses of animal origin are becoming more frequent, largely because of unsustainable human activities such as deforestation, illegal wildlife trade, water and air pollution and the industrial-scale meat industry, all of which disrupt the natural world and force animals and insects into contact with humans.

Climate change is aggravating such disruptions, and children from poor and marginalized communities will continue to bear the worst impacts.

Young climate activists and our scientists have been warning for years that humanity is consuming and abusing nature beyond its limits. Now we’re paying the price for ignoring their warnings. But we want to say, “We hear you.” That’s why the Stockholm Environment Institute and Save the Children are supporting a new campaign by young people across the Asia-Pacific region to make sure their concerns are heard loud and clear.

Tackling the climate crisis and recovering from Covid-19 require an all-of-society approach. Implementing the right technical measures such as improving energy efficiency is important, but first we need to focus on empowerment and inclusion, and that means giving children and youth the tools and platforms they need to bring about lasting change.

Yes, we need to “build back better,” but do so sustainably, placing social justice and gender equality front and center. 

Kaviti, a 17-year-old Sri Lankan girl, recognizes the problem. “My health is affected. I have some issues with my lungs and I get rashes from the heat,” she says.

“The sea is filled with plastic. I don’t think adults are working hard enough for this problem because most of them don’t care, they put plastic and waste and garbage all over the city.”

This is our commitment to Kaviti and millions of children around the world. Let’s show them we care. 

Niall O’Connor is Asia director at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Hassan Noor is Asia regional director for Save the Children.