Stolen Childhoods – youth activism in the climate crisis 

By Abigail Hedges

From Fridays for Future school strikes to her now infamous speech in the UN, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of Greta Thunberg as the face of youth climate action. But Greta is not alone. Her outraged cries of “how dare you!” in the UN echo the shouts of children across the globe whose childhoods are being decimated by the devasting effects of climate change and whose futures on this planet look uncertain at best.

Whilst youth activists call louder than ever for our world leaders to take more radical climate action, the question arises – will they listen?

The impact of climate change on children and youth

Although children are the least responsible for the climate crisis, they experience the most harmful consequences of climate change for a multitude of reasons.

Extreme weather and living conditions

It is widely understood that countries who contribute the least to climate change (both currently and historically) suffer the greatest of its impacts with extreme whether conditions and rising sea levels making entire areas either completely uninhabitable or living conditions near impossible.  Notably, many of these countries have significantly high and increasing populations of children compared to those less directly affected. 

Distressingly, UNICEF predicts that 503 million children are living in high flood risk areas and 160 million children are living in extreme drought, with the WHO estimating that climate-induced malnutrition will likely stunt the growth of nearly 7.5 million children.  It is sadly unsurprising that these numbers are only set to increase.

Deadly disease and health

Children carry the biggest risk when it comes to disease during the climate crisis. Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns mean that there is an increasing prevalence of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, meningitis, cholera and diarrhoeal disease, amongst others.  The biggest sufferers of these diseases are children, for example with children under 5 accounting for 80% of all malarial deaths. By 2030 it is predicted that the consequences of climate change will cause an extra 60,000 malarial child deaths, whilst diarrhoeal disease will lead to an additional 48,000. 

What is more, toxic air pollution affects almost 300 million children worldwide which has serious and long-term effects on childhood development and health. Almost 17 million of the affected children are under the age of 1.

Intergenerational inequity

As if the above reasons weren’t enough, large-scale environmental degradation and climate change means that the world that our youth will inherit will be nothing like the one older generations reaped the benefits of – a prime example of intergenerational inequity. These generations will be deprived of the opportunity to learn from and enjoy the wonders of the natural world as current generations have had the privilege to. This is particularly relevant for indigenous children who often depend on nature for their physical and spiritual wellbeing. 

Youth involvement in policy-making

Whilst children and youth carry the greatest burden in the climate crisis, they are also the ones most rarely given a voice in international forums deciding on the response to climate change.

Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have a right to be heard and states are under a clear obligation to protect the best interests of children. Further, in the landmark Paris Agreement – created with the intention of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2°C but which remains controversial – children are mentioned as a particularly vulnerable group in the preamble, as well as in UN Sustainable Development Goal 13 (Indicator 13.b).

Sadly, these obligations and commitments do not seem to have translated into practice. There is still only limited and superficial child involvement in key decision-making procedures (for example, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change child involvement is extremely limited for those under 18 years) and decision-makers rarely have comprehensive, if any, knowledge on child’s rights issues. 

Children and youth fight back

In an impressive show of unity, children and young people all over the world are standing up to fight for their voices to be heard on climate issues. From protesting in the streets to lobbying national governments, the pressure is mounting on politicians to affect real change, protect the planet for future generations and engage with children’s rights.

However, it is clear that political pressure is not always enough and in the last two years we have seen exciting claims in international fora hoping to enshrine the rights of children and youth in the response to the climate crisis.

The United Nations

In September 2019, Greta Thunberg alongside 15 other youth activists filed the first ever petition on climate change to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. In a monumental move, the case is being brought against 5 of the world’s biggest polluters – all signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey.

The youth activists claim that these state polluters have knowingly and ongoingly contributed to the climate crisis by failing to sufficiently reduce their emissions which in turn violates children’s rights under the Convention, including the right to life (Article 6), the right to health (Article 24), the right to culture (Article 30) and the obligation to put the best interests of the children first when deciding climate policy (Article 3). The admissibility of this case has been contested by the states but fiercely defended by the petitioners.

Will the United Nations Committee take a pragmatic approach, factoring in the urgency of the climate crisis, and allow the claim to proceed? A decision by the Committee on this point is eagerly awaited.

The European Court of Human Rights

In September 2020, six Portuguese youths filed a landmark claim in the European Court of Human Rights against not 1 but 33 European states. As a result of climate change, extreme heatwaves and forest fires have ravaged Portugal in recent years, severely affecting the health and living conditions of children in the region. These six ambitious youths allege that the consequences of this extreme weather violate their human rights and that all 33 states are jointly responsible for this due to their failure to reduce fossil-fuel emissions as required under the Paris Agreement.

Specifically, the youth allege violations of the states’ positive obligations under the right to life (Article 2) and the right to respect for private and family life (Article 8) as well as the prohibition of discrimination (Article 14). The Court itself has raised the interesting question of whether the right not to be subject to inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3) has also been violated. Nonetheless, like the petition in the United Nations Committee, this claim raises many tricky issues of admissibility which will be pivotal to the success of the claim.

Conclusion – are world leaders listening?

To date, the opinions and rights of children have not been sufficiently considered by world leaders on the topic of climate change, despite these children being a stakeholder in this issue. Consequently, the petitions to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the European Court of Human Rights could be monumental as an alternative way to obtain authoritative recognition of youth voices and place pressure on states to act.

Nonetheless, even if these claims are successful – will they truly result in governments putting the needs of children at the forefront of climate policy or will their cries continue to fall on deaf ears? Only time will tell and our planet’s clock is ticking.

For further information see:

  • Child Fund Alliance, Plan international, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages International Terre des Hommes, World Vision, ‘The global climate crisis: a child rights crisis’ (November 2019) (see here).
  • UNICEF, ‘FACT SHEET: The climate crisis is a child rights crisis’ (6 December 2019) (see here).
  • Fridays for the Future (see here).
  • Greta Thunberg, UN Speech (see here).
  • UN Sustainable Development Goal 1 (see here).
  • Case in the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (see here).

Case in the European Court of Human Rights (see here).



 Abigail Hedges

Abbi is a UK qualified lawyer, currently completing a LL.M in Public International Law at the University of Amsterdam to further develop her expertise in international environmental law and human rights law. Utilising her commercial law background, she has a particular interest in business and human rights issues, as well as children’s rights in the climate change context.




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