How does climate change exacerbate health inequalities?
Children and young people experience the impacts of climate change unequally, which has the potential to widen existing child health inequalities as low income households that are already disadvantaged are most vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events and systemic shocks.1
- The direct impacts of climate change on health are created by the changing exposures to, for example, heat and cold, increased air pollution and flooding.2
- However, exposures are not distributed evenly. Low-income households have least choice in where they live and more likely to live in less optimum environments, which creates inequalities in exposure to extreme weather events and poorer air quality.
- Evidence shows:
- Low-income households are over-represented in areas at risk from coastal flooding5
- For CYP in low-income families, this means facing an increased mortality risk from extreme weather events, while air pollution can exacerbate respiratory conditions or contribute to adverse child health outcomes such as cancer, diabetes and obesity.6
Capacity to adapt
- The impacts of climate change will not be the same for everyone due to the differing adaptive capacities of children and young people and their families, which may widen health inequalities. Low-income households may have limited economic resources which will decrease their capacity to adapt, for example, their homes to mitigate the effects of climate change.
- Climate change is leading to increased incidents and severity of heatwaves in the UK. Air-conditioning provides protection from high temperatures, however installing these in households is expensive and can therefore be inaccessible to households living in poverty.7
- At the same time, climate change is leading to more damp and cold homes as a result of increases in winter precipitation in the UK.8 For low-income households, their home may be too expensive to heat to an adequate temperature, which increases their exposure to cold.
- When a household’s adaptive capacity is lower, this can lead to an increased risk of heat-related deaths for children and young people. While living in cold and damp or mouldy homes can additionally exacerbate respiratory illnesses.
Unequal food system
- Currently, 46% of food consumed in the UK is imported, much of which comes from countries that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.9
- Climate change is putting food production and supplies at risk as rising temperatures are shortening crop growth duration and extreme weather events can damage crops, which pose a threat to crop yields and reduce food availability.10
- A shortfall in supply coupled with the current energy crisis will drive increases in food prices.11 This will likely have the greatest impact on lower-income households, as they are more likely to experience food insecurity as a result of higher food prices, and may have to reduce the quantity and/or quality of, or buy cheaper foods which are often less healthy.12 For children and young people this may lead to an increased risk of malnutrition.
- The increasingly visible effects of the climate crisis have given rise to new concepts, such as eco-distress.13
- Eco-distress is emerging condition seen in children and young people and refers to the overwhelming or unmanageable feelings felt when they hear about the environmental threats of climate change, which can have a negative impact on mental health14 . A recent survey found that 73% of 16-24 year olds reported the climate crisis was having a negative effect of their mental health.15
- Central to this is the intergenerational inequity children and young people experience: they have little influence and depend on adults in positions of authority to address this. Only 9% of 16-24 year olds believe that young people have a great deal of influence in making decisions about climate change.16