Climate change has already caused global temperatures to rise, greatly increasing extremes. This will continue until greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to “net zero”. The Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target calls for a roughly 50% reduction in emissions over the next 10 years.

Newborn babies are especially vulnerable to high temperatures. They have limited ability to thermoregulate – or control their body temperature – and can easily become dangerously hot or cold.

Older babies and toddlers can thermoregulate better. But they often fail to report their temperature discomfort. They rely on their caregivers to help them adjust their clothes and change their environment — like opening a window or finding shade.

Africa has some of the poorest and hottest countries in the world. This means that young African children are at particular risk of heat stress.

However, estimates of heat-related mortality among African children are limited, primarily due to the lack of available mortality data on the continent.

There are few studies of the impact of climate change on heat-related child mortality in any region of the world.

To address this knowledge gap, we estimated current and future climate change-related mortality of African children under five years of age. We did this using a range of different global warming scenarios and information from the small number of existing studies relating temperature and child mortality in Africa.

We also took into account population growth and recent declines in overall child mortality in African countries due to improvements in development, such as improved health care and infrastructure.

We estimated that between 2011 and 2020, between 12,000 and 19,000 heat-related child deaths occurred in Africa.

About half of these deaths are due to climate change. The additional deaths due to climate change eclipse recent reductions in heat deaths that have been achieved through improved development.

Our research highlights the urgent need to reduce emissions and take adaptation measures to reduce the impact of heat on infants and children.

Future deaths

The number of child deaths per year due to heat is currently small compared to the number of deaths from diseases such as malaria. Malaria causes an estimated 400,000 deaths per year in Africa for under-fives.

However, future increases in heat-related deaths depend on future greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent global warming.

Even with a decline in overall infant mortality and a rapid reduction in emissions, temperatures and heat-related deaths will continue to rise into the middle of this century. From 2040, the benefits of limiting global warming to 1.5°C are clear.

In a future “business as usual” scenario, if emissions continue to increase, heat-related deaths in Africa could double by 2050.

If we can limit global warming to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C, almost half of these deaths could be prevented.

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What will happen after 2050?

Under future scenarios with high greenhouse gas emissions and significant global warming, by 2100 many parts of Africa will have a climate unlike any other climate on Earth. Therefore, we cannot assume that the current relationships between temperature and heat death in children will persist in the future.

Heat-related mortality depends on social and demographic factors, as well as climate. Without climate change, heat deaths would likely decrease over time due to continued improvements in socioeconomic conditions in African countries, such as improved health care.

We chose not to estimate heat-related deaths after 2050. We considered the uncertainties in future population growth, socioeconomic development, and greenhouse gas emissions too great to make meaningful estimates.

However, taking into account only the increase in temperature, if emissions are reduced according to the Paris Agreement, the number of days per year above the threshold of deadly heat over Africa will be only slightly more in 2100 than today.

If the Paris Agreement is not implemented, by 2100, 200-300 days a year could be above the lethal threshold.

Our estimates do not take into account future adaptation to increased temperatures. With sufficient resources, some adaptation to future temperature extremes – such as air conditioning and changes in care practices – will be possible.

However, because young children – especially newborns – lack thermoregulation, they cannot physiologically acclimate in the same way as adults.

Consequences

Our research shows that climate change is already having a negative impact on the health of children in Africa. A similar situation may occur in other developing countries in the tropics and subtropics.

Currently, no country can reduce emissions enough to comply with the Paris Agreement and keep global warming to 1.5°C.

Without urgent action, by 2100, the tropics could regularly reach the upper limits of human viability – for example, wet bulb temperatures of 35°C – with devastating consequences for people in Africa and elsewhere.

Kathryn Burch, Associate Professor of Meteorology and Climate, University of Leeds; John Marsham, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Leedsand Sarah Chapman, Research Fellow, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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