Experts respond to scathing WHO study showing our kids’ future is under threat

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  Last updated February 20, 2020 at 3:09 pm

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“Australia is the drunken uncle at every wedding that doesn’t seem to realise what he’s doing wrong.”


children sitting in a row kid future threats climate change sustainability sugar food obesity




Why This Matters: People in power aren’t leaving younger generations much to look forward to.




The health and future of every child and adolescent worldwide is under immediate threat, say the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).


The biggest risks, says the report published in The Lancet, come from ecological degradation, climate change, and exploitative marketing practices that push fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco at children.


The report argues that early investments in children’s health, education, and development are required. Not only do these have benefits that compound throughout the child’s lifetime, but will also benefit society as a whole.


The report includes a new global index of 180 countries comparing performance on child survival and well-being, based on health, education, nutrition and sustainability, as well as greenhouse gas emissions, and equity or income gaps.


It found no single country is adequately protecting children’s health, their environment and their futures.


While Australia is ranked 20th for its performance on child survival, we are ranked as one of the top ten worst greenhouse gas emitters.


The authors call for a new global movement for children that drives the reduction of CO2 emissions, achieves sustainable development, improves policy and investment for child health and rights, and regulates commercial marketing.


Australian experts have lent their thoughts on the study, and the factors facing young Australians.


Liz Hanna – Australian National University


Dr Liz Hanna is Chair for the Environmental Health Working Group at the World Federation of Public Health Associations, as well as is from the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University (ANU).


“This rigorous study married the voices of children with global metrics. It further explains why the world’s children are uprising, demanding governments protect their future. Australia’s poor ranking provides powerful evidence that Australia has lost its way.


Decades of wilful neglect of the environment and the erosion of compassion have transformed the lucky country to an international laggard that is failing its children. By taking our natural advantages for granted, Australia is squandering its opportunities to secure a safe and healthy future for our children.


Pandering to the sugar industry, and refusing a sugar tax, needlessly renders children at high risk of obesity, diabetes and a life plagued by chronic disease and disability. Sacrificing our children’s health for electoral wins is nothing short of dereliction of duty of care at best, and I would argue, reflective of criminal neglect at worst.


Similarly, steadfastly clinging to fossil fuel industries, against solid scientific evidence, unfolding climatic crises and environmental degradation knowingly accelerates climate change and robs children of their future.




Deeper: Fossil fuel exports are bad news for two reasons




Ranking 174th out of 180 countries on the Sustainability Index is as shameful as it is stupid. Ecologically ignorant economic rationalists fail to recognise that sustainability of planetary environmental attributes also sustains humanity. We cannot prosper without clean air, clean food, clean water and a stable climate. Economies cannot prosper amidst environmental meltdown as the summer of horrors has so tragically revealed.


The “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign promoted Australia’s easy, friendly eco-tourism. Alas, the bleached Great Barrier Reef now offers little intrinsic value to tourists, burned, scarred landscapes are unlikely to attract visitors when our wildlife is effectively disappearing.


Unlike the climate change denialists who permeate the airwaves and print, and pull rank in the halls of power, the rest of the world understands climate change presents an existential risk… it risks our very existence. They think we are stupid to let our emissions rise 524% above target.




Deeper: There is no strong, resilient Australia without deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions




I ask myself again – Who is running this country? Representatives who serve the Australian people, or the coal industry?


Let’s learn the salient lessons of this summer of horrors, turn this country around, and prioritise our children’s future. Children deserve a future. Their demands are reasonable. We must not fail them.”


Liz has not declared any conflicts of interest.


Paul Read – Monash University


Paul Read is Senior Research Fellow at the Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University and a Co-Director of the National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson


“Am I really surprised that Australia is in the bottom 10 for the Children’s Future report by the WHO-UNICEF-LANCET?  Absolutely not.  Even though Australia has recently been one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, half a century of other datasets confirm the same results as the Children’s Future report by the WHO-UNICEF-LANCET.


In fact, I defy anyone to disagree with me that this report is the most important piece of research in at least two decades, outside of Malte Meinhausen’s ongoing work on carbon emissions and Sandra Diaz’ Mass Extinction Report last year.


In each case, Australia manages to disgrace itself and has done so for several decades – it’s the drunken uncle at every wedding that doesn’t seem to realise what he’s doing wrong. He is Sir Les Patterson. If every person on Earth lived like him, we’d need three planets.


Older Australians are now so wealthy they have 70% of Australia’s assets and yet seem blind to younger people struggling to survive, house themselves, pay or prostitute themselves for their education. The global level of inequity has become inhuman under their watch and the Australian dependency ratio expands as each generation becomes poorer, heading for negative growth.


My work also shows Australian suicide peaks either side of what might these days be called the Trump generation.




Also: Predatory climate change deniers are a threat to our children




Former Aussie of the Year and founder of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, Professor Fiona Stanley, warned us that we were seriously failing our kids almost a decade ago now, and it’s just getting worse. One third of primary school children think the world will end before they have a chance to grow old.


For those Australian citizens who care, I’d suggest watching three things in detail this year – the government’s response to carbon emissions, its response to bushfires, and its response to China – in all cases focusing on the future of Australia’s children.


Nothing else truly matters. It’s way past time for older Australians to fess up and do the right thing on behalf of their own children and grandchildren. Our new cars, fine wines and international trips don’t make us intrinsically interesting at dinner parties – our concern for our children is much more important.


Have a look at those three reports and then vote according to your integrity and not your own bank balance.


Otherwise give world government to Greta Thunberg so our kids have even half a chance at a rapidly dwindling quality of life.


Paul has not declared any conflicts of interest.




Deeper: How to talk about climate change like Greta Thunberg




Grant Blashki – Nossal Institute for Global Health


Associate Professor Grant Blashki is from the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne


“This landmark Lancet WHO report is another game changing Lancet commission that will reverberate through public policy around the world.


In many ways this timely report quantifies many of the common sense  global health principles that recognise the powerful social determinants of children’s health and specifically the need for a safe climate and a healthy food environment for children to thrive.


For Australia it’s a reminder of the need for long-term perspectives when seeking to protect the health of our children and future generations. So what’s really at stake amongst our political debates about action on climate change is nothing less important than the future health of Australian children.




Also: Indigenous youth suicide rates hit crisis point




The global index acknowledges Australia’s excellent performance in the child flourishing dimensions of health education and nutrition, but at the same time reports Australia’s bottom 10 status of 180 countries on the sustainability index and is a real wake up call for Australian policymakers.


The truth is that a dry continent such as Australia is especially vulnerable to climate change impacts as we have seen over this summer with severe drought and bushfires and now flooding, and in the longer term as a country, the long-term well-being of our children needs careful attention to these global upstream determinants such as climate change.


The report also highlights the need for tighter regulation on food advertising to children and Australia like many countries around the world faces an epidemic of the noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, obesity and related illnesses.”


Grant has not declared any conflicts of interest.


Stephen Lincoln – University of Adelaide


Stephen Lincoln is Emeritius Professor in the School of Physical Sciences at the University of Adelaide and a director of South Australian Nuclear Energy Systems.


“A sobering and extensive report, “A future for the world’s children?” was  published on February 19 by a commission composed of the World Health Organization, WHO, and the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF.


The report defines children as being between 0 – 18 years old and unsurprisingly finds children in the poorer nations to be substantially less well-nourished, healthy and educated than those in the wealthier nations. The rights of children are asserted in the in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which has been ratified by all countries except, surprisingly, the United States.


It is found that, while there have been substantial world-wide improvements in children’s nutrition, health and education over the past fifty years, the well-being of all children is now seriously threatened by climate change, ecological degradation and conflict; all of which generate further hazards through forced migration.




Also: What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?




By 2030, 2.3 billion people, many of whom will be children, are projected to live in fragile or conflicted regions of the world.


In addition to these threats, commercial promotion of unhealthy food and other products are identified as a major threat to children’s well-being. Dominating everything are the huge threats of climate change and ecological degradation. The world’s nations agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 and yet few nations, particularly the wealthy ones, have achieved much progress in their attainment.


Embarrassingly, Australia ranks a lowly 174 out of 180 nations on the environmental sustainability index, between the United States and Saudi Arabia at 173 and 175, respectively.


Increasingly, the voices of children, the Earth’s inheritors, are being heard as illustrated by Greta Thunberg who said at the World Economic Summit, Davos, Switzerland, in 2019 “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”


Stephen has not declared any conflicts of interest.


Anthony Okely – University of Wollongong


Senior Professor Anthony Okely is a researcher of child health and education in School of Education, and Director of Research in Early Start, at the University of Wollongong.


“This report reinforces that all Australians need to think more about the future of our country – our children. Australia is performing well on the flourishing index, but more needs to be done here to reduce health and education inequities, especially among our Indigenous children and those who are poor.


While we like to believe we are putting our children first and meeting their needs, our ranking on the Sustainability Index shows that our actions are not meeting our words. Australia’s very low score on this Index is eroding many of the advances we have made in ensuring our children are flourishing.


Our children are growing up in environments that are not supporting their right to an active, healthy life. The high levels of child obesity testify to this.


Children are living more sedentary lifestyles, spending large amounts of time using electronic media for entertainment. This exposes them to marketing of unhealthy foods, displaces time they could spend being physically active, and compromises healthy sleep patterns.




Deeper: Teens watch junk food ads, then reach for a snack




With the vast majority of our children living in cities we need to pay greater attention to their needs and give them a voice in the planning of our urban environments.


More needs to be done to promote active transportation. Our reliance on motor vehicles has resulted in deteriorating levels of air quality and long periods of time spent sitting.


Better infrastructure in the form of footpaths, cycleways/bike lanes, and the rights of pedestrians is needed.


Our children need better access to parks and playgrounds and to be able to move freely around their neighbourhoods without fears about safety or the traffic.”


Anthony has declared no conflicts of interest.


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