How can we protect children in the climate crisis?

The only long-term solution to the climate crisis is a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels. However, climate impacts due to emissions already in the atmosphere will continue to worsen for many years. For children on the front line already suffering the consequences, adaptation that strengthens resilience to climate impacts is as vital as mitigation. 

A range of strategies can be identified to prioritise the protection of children and prevention of violence, even as climate impacts grow.

1. Strengthen protective services

Protective systems, services and communities play a vital role in preventing violence against children and enhancing resilience and adaptability to climate impacts. Services must be inclusive and prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable, should be shock responsive, mobile, and adaptable to disaster. Barriers such as fees or exclusion by migrant status should be removed. 

In anticipation of growing demand, efforts should focus on strengthening community child protection systems. These low-cost systems have specialised knowledge of the community and risks, and can provide immediate support. However, they often suffer from being underfunded, poorly connected to wider networks, and workers may be poorly paid and trained. Investment in these systems is a sustainable strategy, achieving multiple outcomes at lower cost.

Cash-plus transfer systems that provide money alongside a range of other interventions can enhance family resilience and should be prepared to respond during times of crisis. 

Education is a critical protective service for children,[1][2] providing them with knowledge and support, increasing protection from violence especially child marriage and child labour, and delivering the skills to diversify and adapt livelihoods later in life. Practical adaptations should be prepared to ensure children can continue attending school during climate shocks. Free school meals effectively support family livelihood and encourage ongoing school attendance during crises. However, violence is still prevalent in and around many schools, seriously undermining children’s safety and ability to benefit from education, and concerted efforts must be made to eliminate it.

Psychosocial services should be widely available, adaptable and responsive to provide immediate and long-term support for the emotional impacts of the climate crisis.[3] Research should focus on ways of building children’s and communities’ emotional resilience to the impacts of climate change, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. [4]

2. Take a localised approach

The risk of violence, climate impacts, and the presence of protective services and other socioeconomic factors can vary greatly between localities, even within the same country or area. A localised approach based on contextualised knowledge and responses increases relevance and stakeholder ownership, especially where social and cultural issues are concerned. Community-based disaster planning involving children can consider child protection risks as part of a localised approach.

Political decision-making can seem very distant from local communities and may not reflect the issues on the ground. Connections between local and national levels should be improved to ensure national priorities and responses address local experiences. The process of declaring an emergency for localised but serious crises should be adapted to be more locally sensitive.

Adaptive solutions and change often emerge from the grassroots level. Increased long-term investment in community programmes, incorporating a child protection focus would result in sustainable long-term solutions and enhanced community resilience.

3. An anticipatory approach is vital

Moving from a response focus to an anticipatory approach is a critical, cost-effective, preventative strategy. This involves anticipating the fast or slow-onset climate impacts expected in a particular area and planning to ensure that protective measures are in place before disaster strikes. While anticipatory approaches to food security or shelter are increasingly common, the inclusion of child protection measures is rare. Disaster planning should consider child protection risks posed by climate disasters as standard practice, for example establishing coordination mechanisms between climate change and child protection ministries before a crisis happens, rather than trying to achieve coordination during a crisis. Early warning and forecasting for protection risks should also be established.[5]

4. Work towards multi-sectoral integration and coordination

The disconnection between the climate and child protection sectors is a fundamental obstacle in protecting children. Climate partners, child protection, finance, education, health, and others must be brought together to achieve a comprehensive approach. Advocacy is needed to secure a higher profile for child protection within the climate agenda.

While climate policies and initiatives at an international and national level are now more likely to mention ‘children’, among other vulnerable groups, this rarely translates into tangible policy and hardly ever addresses protection issues. Children continue to be largely absent from national planning processes and usually invisible when policy makers are making big decisions about crises and anticipatory action. Children and child protection must be mainstreamed within all the planning, financing, adaptation, and mitigation mechanisms. 

Violence and environmental issues are also often addressed separately within the children’s sector, so that the ways in which they compound each other in a child’s life can be overlooked. Capacity and lack of specialist climate knowledge are a challenge for many CSOs, but organisations could find ways of collaborating, and start applying a ‘climate lens’ to thematic areas, similar to increasing use of a ‘gender lens’. 

Guidance and programmes such as the INSPIRE framework could be adapted to consider climate interlinkages. 

5. Prepare for the long term

Many people and organisations, including donors and governments, have not grasped the severity of the predicted impacts and consequences of the climate crisis. Lack of understanding and capacity combined with unpredictability make long term approaches a challenge. However, strategies must consider timeframes longer than the next few years, and predicted climate impacts must be considered from a child protection perspective now in order to give children the best chance.

6. Improve data and evidence

There is a lack of systematic research in this area, and a pressing need for disaggregated data to improve understanding of children’s particular experiences in any context, to target interventions, and to help increase visibility of climate-exacerbated violence against children. Evidence can help to make the case for inclusion of child protection in climate decision making and policy development, strengthen advocacy efforts, and develop understanding about interventions. Nationally owned data and country-specific studies can be effective in enhancing national leadership, understanding and action.

7. Funding: the critical obstacle

Funding is a critical obstacle to implementing preventative and protective strategies, both in relation to climate exacerbated-violence and in preventing violence against children generally. While donors increasingly have climate focused funding streams, they tend to be dominated by infrastructure development, focus on mitigation at the expense of adaptation, and neglect the social dimensions of climate adaptation. Children, let alone child protection, barely feature in climate funding, and donors are not yet connecting increased risk of violence with the climate crisis.

Partners report difficulty in persuading donors to take an integrated funding approach that recognises the connections between the climate crisis and child protection, with much greater investment in climate resilience and particularly child centred adaptation.

There is a particular need and opportunity for a substantial increase in funding anticipatory and preventative approaches to humanitarian disasters. These approaches are more cost effective and sustainable, enhance community resilience and importantly provide much better protection for children than response-based methods. However, so far they have received little investment. 

In considering these protective strategies, three overarching priorities come to light:

  • The association between climate impacts and violence against children must be made visible

Most people and organisations, including governments and international bodies are unaware that the climate crisis is increasing violence against children. Every opportunity should be taken to name children’s growing risk, always including it in the list of climate impacts. 

  • Uphold the centrality of children[6] and make them visible in all climate and humanitarian planning and policy

Despite carrying the heaviest burden, children are frequently overlooked in climate and humanitarian planning and policy. Governments and others should place children and their rights at the centre of climate planning and policies and must be held accountable for the protection of children. 

  • Child participation in shaping the climate and child protection agendas is a right, and an essential protective strategy

Children’s particular knowledge of their context provides vital information and leads to better, more sustainable interventions, while involving them in decision-making is empowering and protective. Child agency is a critical factor in child participation, enhancing protection and reducing climate anxiety.

Although children will face worsening climate impacts over their lifetimes[7] greater empowerment has the potential to profoundly affect their experience and contribute to a wider change in their participation and status across society, even within difficult environmental conditions. More understanding is needed about how children can be empowered within very challenging contexts, and more investment to support their participation and empowerment in climate processes.


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[1] Pereznieto, P., Rivett, J., Le Masson, V., George, R. and Marcus, R., 2020. Ending violence against children while addressing the global climate crisis. Overseas Development Institute.

[2] UNICEF, 2021a. The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis: Introducing the Children's Climate Risk Index. UNICEF.

[3] Devonald, M., Jones, N. and Yadete, W., 2020. The first thing that I fear for my future is lack of rain and drought’: Climate change and its impacts on adolescent capabilities in low-and middle-income countries. Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence: London, UK.

[4] Burke, S.E., Sanson, A.V. and Van Hoorn, J., 2018. The psychological effects of climate change on children. Current psychiatry reports20(5), pp.1-8.

[5] Save the Children, 2021 Born into The Climate Crisis - Why we must act now to secure children’s rights

[6] Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action (ACPHA), 2021a. A Clarion Call: The Centrality of Children and their Protection, 2021-2025 Strategy.

[7] IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.