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Research finds children and youth among the most vulnerable Canadians to climate change

Research finds children and youth among the most vulnerable Canadians to climate change

We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children
- Native American Proverb

Patricia Figueiredo Walker
Patricia Figueiredo Walker

What factors contribute to the vulnerability of Canadian children and youth to climate change? How can education and other factors enhance and promote their adaptive capacity? To what extent is Canada’s education system enhancing students’ climate knowledge and constructive climate change engagement? These are the questions asked by Patricia Figueiredo Walker in her paper on Young Canadians and Climate Change: Vulnerability, Adaptive Capacity, Education, and Agency (2021).

Walker’s paper describes in detail some of the implications of climate change for the physical and mental health and wellbeing of young Canadians. It highlights the ways in which Canadian children and youth who experience existing socioeconomic, health, and educational inequities (e.g., those who are Indigenous, low-income, Black, racialized, disabled, refugees, and immigrants) are adversely affected by climate change. The paper explores the role of education in enhancing young people’s adaptive capacity, knowledge and awareness of climate change, and meaningful and effective participation in climate change research, policy, and practice.

Notably, Canada’s climate is warming at twice the global rate and its population is already experiencing several adverse effects of climate change. Canadian children and youth (like children and youth worldwide) are among the most vulnerable to climatic changes due to physiological and developmental factors. Given that Canada is a signatory to the Paris Agreement and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has binding obligations to reduce its carbon emissions, plan and implement adaptation measures for its citizens, including children and youth, and to provide the latter with a healthy environment in which to grow up.

Using mixed-methods research design and methodology, Walker provides an interdisciplinary review of the published literature on the climate vulnerability, adaptive capacity, and agency of Canadian children and youth. Her study reveals that while children and youth are among the most vulnerable Canadians to climatic changes due to physiological and developmental factors, their vulnerability, adaptation, and adaptive capacity are largely undocumented in the climate change literature. Several factors such as health, socioeconomic, and sociocultural factors, contribute to the vulnerability of Canadian children and youth to climate change.

Cross-curricular integration of climate-related topics at Bruce Peninsula
Figure 1. Cross-curricular integration of climate-related topics at Bruce Peninsula District School. Source: Hargis & McKenzie (2021).

Although health factors of vulnerability and the health impacts of climate change on these groups have been documented in the published and grey literatures to a certain extent, information on the socioeconomic and sociocultural factors contributing to their vulnerability remains scarce. Furthermore, young people worldwide, including marginalized children and youth (e.g., those who live in poverty and/or are Indigenous, racialized, immigrants, disabled, etc.) were largely excluded from consideration as a group in global climate change mitigation and adaptation decision-making processes until their groundswell of activist leadership, beginning in 2018.

A 2018 report by the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN) revealed that “provincial and territorial curriculum guidelines are woefully lacking in preparing an engaged citizenry to help mitigate and adapt to climate change. Aside from a few environmentally focused curriculum guides and subject-specific resources, curricula seem to be largely ignoring the challenge of integrating climate change across the curriculum” (Chopin et al, 2018). However, despite this, “several Canadian schools are going further than the provincial curriculum to integrate CCE and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) within a range of subject classes” (Hargis & McKenzie, 2021). For example, the Bruce Peninsula District School, an elementary school in Lion’s Head, Ontario has integrated climate change across subjects (see Figure 1) and adopted a whole school approach to climate action.

Hargis and McKenzie (2020) also highlight the “critical” role of social learning and place-based pedagogies “in moving beyond climate and environmental awareness to empowerment and action.” They further advocate for “a ‘whole institution’ or ‘whole school’ approach to climate change, which involves engagement in each of the areas of teaching and learning, facilities and operations, community partnerships, and governance.”

Overview of the ‘whole institution’ approach to climate change education
Figure 2. Overview of the ‘whole institution’ approach to climate change education. Source: Hargis & McKenzie (2020).

In terms of strategic action plans to prepare young Canadians to live and thrive in a changing climate, Canada accordingly will need to adopt and develop a series of policies and measures which, 1) take into account the unique needs and vulnerabilities of children and youth, 2) enhance their adaptive capacity, agency, and knowledge of climate change, 3) address existing inequities, including health disparities and education inequality, 4) improve the socioeconomic conditions of disadvantaged and marginalized children and youth, 5) address systemic problems advancing climate change, systemic discrimination, poverty, and inequality, 6) promote children and youth’s participation in climate change processes, and 7) recognize and uphold every young Canadian’s right to freedom of expression and a healthy environment (as outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child) and the right to equality, life, liberty and security of person (as outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

Walker concludes that to understand the vulnerability and adaptive capacity of young Canadians, more research and interdisciplinary collaboration are needed. “Many have made the analogy that Earth is like a ship and humans are its crew”, she says. “As we consider this analogy, do we carefully train and prepare the next generation of our ship’s crew—taking their specific needs and perspectives into account or pass the baton, hoping they will somehow weather the storm we so carelessly steered them towards?” she asks.

This paper’s ultimate aim is to provide a recognition and greater understanding of the challenges that lay ahead for the current and future generations of Canadian children and youth, so that we together as a people may set them on the right course, help them to thrive in the face of adversity, provide spaces and opportunities for them to voice their opinions, express, develop, and realize their ideas, and most importantly, enjoy their right to a just and sustainable future.

Patricia Walker is a MES alumna and worked with Prof. Ellie Perkins in the Queen Elizabeth Scholars (QES) Ecological Economics, Commons Governance, and Climate Justice project. Previously, she coordinated Perkins' IDRC project on Climate Change Adaptation in Africa. Her research focuses on the vulnerability, adaptive capacity and adaptation of poor and politically marginalized groups (especially women, children, and youth) to climate change.