The Human Rights of Children Depend on Urgent Climate Action

Failing to stop fossil fuel production violates children’s rights to life and health.

Mary Robinson, Peter Kalmus

Mary Robinson is the former president of Ireland, former United Nations high commissioner for human rights and chair of The Elders. Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, speaking on his own behalf.

It’s time for countries to unite behind bold climate action and protect the future of the children of their nations. (Visoot Uthairam/Getty Images)

Today, 16 children sent letters to the governments of Norway and Canada with a simple but bold request: that these nations uphold their commitments to safeguard children by responding with urgency to the climate crisis, and that they be held accountable for running in the wrong direction, disregarding science and violating the right to life and health of children everywhere.

These children represent the United States, Sweden, the Marshall Islands, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Tunisia and other countries. The letters call out Norway and Canada for recently approving new projects designed to expand fossil fuel production, further accelerating the climate crisis. For example, over the next 20 years, Canada plans to increase its production of oil and gas by roughly 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively, even though science tells us that humanity must end its dependence on fossil fuels. These countries are not alone, unfortunately: Too many world leaders continue to make investments in fossil fuels despite the climate crisis.

Fossil fuels have been undeniably useful to the human project. Modern civilization is built on them. But now we know the dangers they present. Global heating of only 1.1 degrees Celsius (2.0 degrees Fahrenheit) is already supercharging heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, storms and floods around the globe. It is already contributing to the widespread decline and death of ecosystems like tropical and boreal forests and coral reefs at a sickening pace. It is threatening food and water supplies, as well as geopolitical stability. As if this weren’t enough, air pollution from all the burning of fossil fuels is the single greatest threat to health on the planet. Every new day that we burn fossil fuels makes all of this worse.

“Too many world leaders continue to make investments in fossil fuels despite the climate crisis.”

We find ourselves at an extraordinary moment. Our glorious, living planet has already been pushed too far by our use of fossil fuels. Our window of opportunity to stave off the bad has closed, and now humanity’s collective back is against the wall to prevent the catastrophic. The scientific consensus is that humanity must cut global emissions in half by 2030 or sooner for a fighting chance to remain below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of global heating. However, many scientists, including one of us, feel that even this is too slow. Furthermore, wealthy developed nations must go even faster since far more of their fossil fuels are burned for “wants” as opposed to “needs.”

We have the technology to accomplish such a massive, rapid transition. But governments and fossil fuel companies — even the ones that understand the dangers posed by the climate crisis and have voiced a commitment to address it — remain in a state of denial, accelerating humanity headlong toward catastrophe and possible global genocide. In so doing, they cast aside children’s right to survive and develop healthily. In so doing, they may even divert the collective future of humanity from a path of prosperity, peace and collective self-discovery to something unthinkably dark and effectively permanent from the perspective of humans. This is a devastating breach of trust.

Every additional fraction of a degree of warming has the potential to set off a domino effect of irreversible changes to our planet that will deteriorate the quality of life for humanity so much that even the most basic of human rights will be rendered untenable.

One mechanism to prevent this is contained within the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which states that whenever adults make decisions, or do anything that affects children, they should always think about what is best for the child. Children have the right to voice their opinions and be taken seriously when decisions affecting their futures are being made.

“Whenever adults make decisions, or do anything that affects children, they should always think about what is best for the child.”

At COP25, the annual climate conference taking place in Madrid right now, the future of our planet is being plotted, for better or worse, for action or inaction, on timescales longer than humans have existed. Children are right to be concerned about those decisions.

If the world’s nations do not rapidly act on the climate emergency, they will allow it to become the biggest and longest-lasting human rights crisis humanity has ever faced. It’s time for countries to demonstrate the courage to keep their promises and protect the children of their nations — of all nations. It’s time for countries to unite behind the science and lead us into a future free of fossil fuels.

Like the children bringing forth these letters, and the millions more who have risen up in protest over the past year, we are angry and terrified. But also like the children, we know real change is coming. The countries that take the lead now and guide us toward ecological civilization will literally save humanity, and protect the rights of children for generations to come.