A new study highlights the intergenerational injustice at the heart of the climate crisis – and could also aid potential climate lawsuits.
Every way scientists have crunched the numbers, the youth of today will inherit a hotter, more unpredictable world than the one their grandparents knew. The question is just how much worse that future climate will be.
A new study, the first of its kind, has set out to quantify how many more climate disasters today’s children are set to experience in their lifetimes, compared to generations past.
Led by climate scientist Wim Thiery from Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, the study shows how today’s youth face the prospect of a lifetime of climate disasters dominated by heatwaves.
Who is responsible? Around the world, people of all ages are taking their cases to court and holding big emitters to account, with a branch of climate science that links carbon emissions to climate impacts providing key evidence to support their cases.
At the core of this youth-led international movement is the fact that young people who have contributed the least towards the climate crisis face the worst impacts of it.
Seeing teens take to the courts and flock to the streets to demand a fairer future moved Thiery to reframe projections of climate extremes.
Usually, climate science studies compare the present day or past climate to some distant time window in the future, which can be hard to fathom. Instead, Thiery and colleagues coupled demographic data with projections from four global climate models to estimate how many more extreme events younger generations will likely experience in their lifetimes compared to those in an older age bracket.
The analysis turns an unimaginable future circa 2100 into an intergenerational comparison and shows how drastic reductions to global carbon emissions could avert the worst impacts of climate change.
“They will live to see the day when these scenarios [of climate futures] really start to diverge from each other,” Thiery said when presenting his work.
Data on hazardous extreme events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves were combined with global temperature trajectories from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and data on life expectancy and population growth for different countries over time.
Thiery’s work, which has been published in the journal Science, estimated kids under 10 years old in 2020 will face four times as many climate extremes on average over their lifetimes, compared to Gen X-ers born in 1960, if the world limits global heating to 1.5 degrees.
But under current climate policy pledges, which have the world heading towards 2.6°C of warming or more, kids born in 2020 could see up to seven times more extreme events in their lives as climate change intensifies, with children in low-income countries in the Middle East and Africa bearing the brunt of those extremes.
And if the planet warms by 3°C come 2100, a 6-year-old child in 2020 can expect 36 times more heatwaves in their lifetime than their grandparents, five times as many droughts, four times more crop failures, thrice as many river floods, and twice as many wildfires – increases in exposure which are almost entirely attributable to human-caused climate change.
The findings have shaken even the steeliest climate scientists.
“By no means am I surprised that [my children] will be so much more exposed to extremes,” wrote Sarah Perkins-Fitzpatrick, a climate scientist at the University of NSW, on Twitter.
“But seeing the actual figures framed in their context is very sobering.”
Limiting global warming to 1.5°C nearly halves the lifetime exposure to heatwaves today’s children would experience, Thiery found, and substantially reduces the burden for wildfires, crop failures, droughts, tropical cyclones and floods.
“The strong reduction in intergenerational burden under a 1.5°C pathway highlights the stark need of increased climate ambition, for children worldwide,” says Thiery.
“At the same time, a sobering message for the youth in low-income countries emerges, where incredibly challenging extreme events are robustly projected, even under the most stringent of climate action futures.”
Climate in the courts
The study from Thiery and colleagues reflects the tension between generations, most palpable in climate protests demanding greater climate action, and calls for intergenerational justice which have resounded in courtrooms the world over.
In some landmark cases, courts have ruled that governments and even companies are duty-bound to uphold basic human rights and protect future generations from the worst impacts of climate change by cutting emissions.
In the case of Sharma v Minister for the Environment, where eight Australian teenagers and an 86-year-old nun brought a negligence case against the federal government and won, the expert evidence from climate risk analyst Dr Karl Mallon was key. He quantified how climate change would harm children to the tune of $245,000 in financial losses and health costs over each and every young Australian’s lifetime.
But for Andrew King, a climate scientist who studies extreme events at the University of Melbourne, seeing how exposure to climate extremes differs from one generation to the next in Thiery’s analysis really hits home.
“It illustrates quite starkly how we’re changing the climate so rapidly that from one generation to the next we’re seeing big increases in frequency and intensity of extreme events that young people, children and the next generations will experience,” King says.
Shocking as it is, King hopes that the study, in providing a new perspective on climate projections, makes people think more about what current carbon emissions mean for future generations.
“It’s past generations and people around today who are emitting greenhouse gases that will affect the climate that our children and grandchildren will experience,” he says.
“We’re harming the planet and at the moment we’re not doing enough to limit that damage, and we’re leaving it to future generations to clean up the mess that we causing.”
Katherine Owens, an environmental law expert at the University of Sydney, says the work by Thiery and colleagues reinforces recent developments in climate litigation.
The study – which actually computes lifetime exposure for people born every generation between 1960 and 2020 in nearly 180 countries, under a spectrum of emissions scenarios from 1°C of warming up to 3.5°C – also broadens and deepens the scientific evidence which could be used in climate lawsuits to demonstrate the foreseeable risks to young people in their lifetimes, Owens says.
“They will be able to pinpoint when such harm will occur, [demonstrate] that it will occur when they are alive, and [show] that they will be the class of persons most susceptible to the harms in question,” Owens says.
“They will also be able to establish that there is a real risk of injury rather than a mere possibility of risk.”
It’s important to note that the analysis in Science quantified lifetime exposure to climate extremes, not the impact of climate disasters which vary from place to place and affect some vulnerable groups more than others.
Climate projections of heatwaves also have greater certainty than wildfires or tropical cyclones, which are more challenging to simulate in climate models, King notes.
The impact on children is also probably far greater than Thiery and colleagues estimated, as the analysis didn’t factor in multiple heatwaves and other climate extremes that occur within the same year, or consider slow-onset damages such as coastal inundation from rising seas that threaten island nations.
“In some parts of the world, being exposed to some of these events is fatal for many people, and in other parts of the world, the same extremity of an event won’t have the same devastating consequences,” King explains.
Still, Owens says the study in Science could assist future litigants by providing courts with an understanding of future climate scenarios and lays out research that links the age of a person to their risk of exposure to harm.
And this new research is likely just the first of many studies set on quantifying inequities of the climate crisis, from the costs of mitigating the worst impacts of climate change and the benefits of doing so, to the damages from extreme weather events across different regions.
“There is an increasing focus [amongst researchers] on the burden that young people experience through climate change and working out ways to try and remove some of that injustice,” King says.
Clare Watson is a freelance science journalist based in Wollongong, NSW, specialising in health, medicine and the environment.