This essay is the second published from the National Public Health Student Think Tank competition, ahead of the Public Health Association of Australia’s Australian Public Health Conference 2019 in Adelaide from 17-19 September. Others in the series are by Rosalie Schutz and Christina Zorbas.
Hayden Burch writes:
The Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines a world in which children have the right to survive and grow in a healthy physical environment.
Yet child rights, and children themselves, are rarely included in discussions on climate change and how to respond to it. Children are a particularly vulnerable group, with many of the key killers of young children (undernutrition, acute respiratory infections, diarrhoea, malaria and other vector-borne diseases) highly sensitive to climatic conditions. Physiologically and developmentally, children are disproportionately vulnerable to the negative health impacts.
A focus on children and the rights of the child in adaptation and mitigation of climate change represents a significant window of opportunity. On a global scale, meaningful actions toward improving children’s right to health for the most part aligns with effective policy and strategies to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As such, implementation of the Rights of the Child could be the crucial avenue to achieving international obligations to the 2015 Paris agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
On a domestic level, a number of examples highlight the power – both political and moral – that integrating children and child rights into Australian climate policy would generate toward effective climate action. Firstly, child health has been a crucial element of public health advocacy on the obesity epidemic in Australia. The intuitive justice of implementing public health education on nutrition, increasing funding for school and healthcare-based lifestyle and family-based interventions and lobbying for a national sugar tax has leveraged off the Australian communities increased willingness for improved proportionate public health regulation to protect children’s health. Organisations like Bicycle Network have been able to successfully partner with government and gain community support for delivering a nationwide program enabling students to get physically active on their journey to school. The health co-benefits of active transport for children is a strong argument that supports broader active transport policy as an important climate mitigation method.
Secondly, on the domestic front we have seen under the somewhat ambiguous and secretive Border Force Protection Act that the rights of children to health being pivotal to advocating for both a more humane and health-focussed policy for asylum seekers and refugees. Key advocates in asylum seeker and refugee rights have been successful in demonstrating that children’s health is an imperative. Particularly in this politically charged policy area, the argument centred on the rights of the child has been unique in its success and demonstrates the opportunity that utilising a child-rights framework would provide to the public health approach to climate change.
Finally, on a global scale examples of co-benefits of improving child rights and addressing climate change are positive. In Morocco, the country has developed a project aimed at reducing the burden of water collection on girls in areas of drought and water scarcity. By doing so they have succeeded in raising their net primary school attendance by 20 per cent.
Ultimately children deserve hope for a meaningful future. Therefore, taking a child-focussed approach to addressing climate change also poses the greatest global health opportunity this century. However, health doesn’t depend only on health care – it also depends on nutrition, lifestyle, education, girl’s and women’s empowerment and the extent of inequality and freedom in a society. By seeing health as a right of children, we acknowledge the need for a strong social commitment to good health that can protect the environment and achieve sustainable development that meets the needs of present and future generations.
Hayden Burch is a dual Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health student at the University of Melbourne and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia