Climate change is very personal for me. For the past 40 years, ActionAid Bangladesh has been working relentlessly to improve the lives of the marginalized people of Bangladesh challenging all forms of social and economic discrimination and inequality in order to protect their rights and ensure social justice. Over the years, our work evolved to address the ever-growing issues resulting from climate change. However, all that we have achieved and aspire to achieve through our initiatives so far, is being eroded away.
Children, especially children of climate vulnerable nations like ours, bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis. Yet they are among the hardest hit by its impacts. They are more vulnerable than adults to the innumerable environmental and socio-economic problems caused by climate change and their future is under threat as the planet becomes a more dangerous place to live in. If we are to look at the numbers just for Bangladesh, nearly 1 in 3 children in Bangladesh are suffering from different aspects of climate crisis. With 41% of its population under 18, that is approximately 20 million children who are already suffering or experiencing the negative consequences of climate change, Bangladesh ranks 15 out of 163 countries in UNICEF’s global Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI). The worst part of this narrative is that this is only getting worse due to the inactions and misappropriated actions of the global stakeholders.
To understand what this means in real terms for the high-risk children, ActionAid Bangladesh conducted a survey of 300 children, aged 13-18, in eight disaster-prone districts where we work. While the survey identified and reaffirmed many of the established outcomes of climate change, what was perhaps the most heart rendering to me was when the children stated that they cannot tell the difference between the changing seasons. They know and have learnt in school that Bangladesh has six seasons, but all they have felt and continue to feel are prolonged periods of extreme heat, unusually heavy rainfall, and a short brief but very cold winter. To imagine a childhood devoid of the delicate beauty of the changes in the seasons, the sights, smells, flora, and fauna, that personified rural Bangladesh, is to imagine a different identity for the country. The tragicness of which is something I am finding very difficult to reconcile with both personally as well as in terms of what it signifies.
However, what follows this misfortune is even worse. The beautiful changing seasons of rural Bangladesh has been replaced by frequent floods, severe salinity intrusion in coastal districts, irregular and unseasonal heavy rainfall outside of monsoon, year-long heat which reaches extremes during summer, and severe cold waves during short winters. The socio-economic impact of these changes has been far-reaching and spells nothing short of disaster for rural Bangladeshi children. These weather extremities and climate induced disasters are significantly impacting their education, health, and their families’ livelihoods. More than 40% of the 300 children surveyed either reported that their education was hampered due to one or more of the climate induced factors, or identified this as an issue even if they haven’t experienced it directly. Long term closure of schools due to floods, damaged roads even after flood water recedes and accumulation of tidal water on roads resulting in cutting off access to schools was mentioned by many of the children. Children have linked their increased suffering from diseases like diarrhea, jaundice, dengue, allergies, and skin diseases to water-logging, floods, and an increasing lack of fresh water due to salinity.
The most severe suffering stems from the loss of their families’ livelihood and income. An alarming 63% of the interviewed children reported a loss or decline in their families’ livelihood or income. Damage to crops due to different impacts of climate change, has made our children face food insecurity, food shortage in case of disasters, putting them at risk for malnutrition. Children reported that they have seen that the resulting financial insecurity has even led some families to take their children out of school to marry off the girl child or engage them in household chores or outside employment to contribute to the family. In salinity prone areas, a scarcity of safe drinking water means that children, usually girl children, often find their study time shortened as they walk longer distances to secure safe freshwater for their family’s consumption.
What the children have described are challenges that have become a part of their daily existence. We as an agency know from experience the possible far-reaching consequences of these vulnerabilities. Rural families such as these children’s often end up becoming climate migrants due to the loss of home, land, or livelihood. Migrating to urban areas to take up menial paying informal jobs, finding shelter in makeshift homes in the overcrowded and filthy makeshift settlements, the children end up paying the ultimate price with an abrupt end to their education, and at risk of physical violence, sexual exploitation, drug addiction or trafficking, as they either join the informal labour force or are left unattended to in the slums when parents are at work.
While this is the story of our children, let us take a moment to shift our focus to who or what is responsible for affecting our children’s lives. As the climate crisis escalates, despite promises and commitments in the global arena, the fossil fuel industry and industrial agriculture continue to expand and thrive. Historically, the countries in the Global North have been the highest emitters and continue to occupy that space with China joining the league and surpassing them in total emissions per year. New research by ActionAid conducted as part of its recently launched global climate campaign highlighted those seven years since the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was adopted, the fossil fuel industry in the Global South received an estimated US$3.2 trillion in bank financing, while the largest industrial agriculture companies operating in the Global South received around US$370 billion over the same period. This is an annual average of 20 times more financing to fossil fuels and agriculture activities in the Global South than Global North governments have provided as climate finance to countries such as Bangladesh who are on the front lines of the climate crisis. It should be noted that majority of the corporation in question are from the Global North.
While the actions of the global financial institutions, multinational corporations and the inactions of governments of countries in the Global North, push the world’s most vulnerable children into the brink of destruction, are we to infer that the approximately $30 billion in climate grants and loans provided by developed nations annually to emerging markets and developing countries , compared to a staggering $500 billion received annually by the fossil fuel and industrial agriculture companies, is a mere consolation prize for climate change vulnerable countries like ours? In the grand scheme of things is this serving to just detract us from the real problem, and is not a sincere commitment towards a collective pathway to change?
The global financial institutions and corporations carry on with business as usual when Bangladesh’s children suffer from hunger, displacement, poverty, disease, and insecurity, with no respite in sight. The global discourse to address climate crisis goes on when we should be forthcoming with drastic efforts for adaptation worldwide and investing to address loss and damage which have accumulated, pushing the children at the edge of existential crisis. However, with the recent Climate Protestors March in New York calling to end fossil fuel, and the Climate Ambition Summit convened by the Secretary General at the UNGA, I do hope that the global leaders meeting in New York will pay heed to the call stated by the high ambition coalition leaders.
HOW THE FINANCE FLOWS: THE BANKS FUELLING THE CLIMATE CRISIS, ActionAid, 2023
The Climate Crisis is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 2021