Children in a changing climate: How child-centered approaches can build resilience and overcome multiple barriers to adaptation

Below is the text of a chapter I wrote for a book edited by Phoebe Godfrey and Denise Torres – Emergent Possibilities for Global Sustainability: Intersections of race, class and gender, published by Routledge as part of their Advances in Climate Change Research Series.

There is near universal agreement that children have rights, and agreement on the scope and content of those rights. Children’s rights, enshrined and safeguarded in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (UN, 1989), have been ratified by every United Nations (UN) member state, except Somalia and the United States (US). While the US has not ratified the CRC, it is obliged to respect the object and purpose of the convention as it is broadly considered customary international law due to its overwhelming ratification (UN, 1969, art. 18). Nevertheless, many nation states have not implemented policies to secure and protect children’s rights.

Global climate change (GCC) is a key issue for children’s rights. The impacts of global warming will further hinder children’s ability to claim their rights by placing more obstacles in the way of states’ (already mediocre) provisions of protection. Children are susceptible to nearly all the conceivable impacts of GCC, including direct physical impacts, health impacts, and the more gradual impacts of under-nutrition and malnourishment. The ways in which communities and governments plan for and respond to the impacts of GCC through policy processes and practical actions will, in large part, shape the ways in which children experience a climate changed future – and may compound the existing layers of discrimination many children already face due to the complex intersections of age, race, class and gender, as well as where they are geographically located. However, as GCC impacts intensify, children’s rights will become even more difficult to achieve and sustain. The inevitable result will be more lives unnecessarily cut short as governments fail to safeguard the rights of children in a changing climate.

The world is heading towards a future with a much harsher climate. While there is a global commitment to holding temperature increases to no more than two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels (UNFCCC, 2010, p. 3), this goal is unlikely to be met. Temperature increases may well be double the goal by century’s end (International Energy Agency, 2011;) largely due to global capitalism’s insatiable need to continually expand production, the Global North’s addiction to high-consumption lifestyles, and the Global South’s understandable desire to achieve similar levels of development.

The impacts on children of a world that is 4°C (39°F) hotter will be detri- mental to the achievement of the rights enshrined in the CRC. Children’s rights have contributed to advances in children’s welfare (the under-five mortality rate, for example, has halved since 1990 (UN, 2014, p. 24)), but progress is already stalling in the face of climate-linked diseases, which are the largest killer of young children (UN, 2014, p. 24), and are set to increase in severity due to GCC. In this context, ‘development as usual’ approaches, even those adopting a child-centered approach, are likely to prove inadequate to meeting children’s needs.

Children are one of the most vulnerable groups to the impacts of GCC (Save the Children, 2009; Seballos et al., 2011; UNICEF, 2011). They are physiologically and psychologically less able to cope with its impacts and their exclusion from decision-making processes exacerbates these inherent vulnerabilities. Combined, these issues intensify the existing multiple layers of discrimination many children experience on a daily basis. Furthermore, it is the most vulnerable children who will be most deprived of their right to a healthy environment and a sustainable future.

This chapter focuses on the impacts of GCC on children in the Global South, highlighting the general vulnerabilities of children as a group, but also examining the multiple layers of discrimination that many children suffer (including poverty, gender, class, religion, race and disability) and how GCC will exacerbate these challenges. In so doing, I argue that treating children as a generic ‘vulnerable group’ when devising strategies and actions to manage climate change risks masking the significant differences within and between groups of children. While children are more exposed than adults to most GCC impacts, not all children are equally vulnerable to all impacts, nor are all children more vulnerable than all adults to all impacts.

I argue that taking a child-centered (contextualized and rights-based) approach to reducing climate risks and building resilience will make a significant contribution to helping children claim their rights and reach their aspirations in a climate changed world. Finally, I conclude by arguing that integrating this risk reduction and resilience building approach into broader sector-based programs and activities can help address the multiple drivers of children’s vulnerability to GCC.

Linking children’s rights and mortality

Even without considering the additional burdens of GCC, the fulfilment of child rights remains a problem globally. A key indicator of progress in implementing children’s rights is the under-five mortality rate, which measures the number of children who die before their fifth birthday per 1,000 live births. In 2013, 6.3 million children died before reaching age five (UNICEF, 2014a, p. 29). The majority of under-five deaths globally have climate-linked causes, including diarrheal diseases, malaria and malnutrition (UNICEF, 2012, p. 25). In the Global South, child survival remains a challenge, with the Least Developed Countries having an average under-five mortality rate of 80 (per 1,000 live births in 2013) (UNICEF, 2014a, p. 41), in stark contrast to industrialized countries’ average of 6 (in 2010) (UNICEF, 2012, p. 129).

While some of these failures are related to economic development, they also reflect the level of priority being accorded to child rights. This is demonstrated by the fact that increasing a country’s economic resources does not necessarily result in an increase in access to rights. For example, the US ranks worst in under five mortality (tied with the Slovak Republic) of the 31 high-income members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The US also ranks eight places below Cuba in terms of child survival, while Cuba’s gross domestic product per capita is a fifth of that of the US. To make a difference, children’s rights must be more substantive than rhetorical.

Vulnerability or vulnerabilities?

In annual State of the World’s Children reports, UNICEF highlights that it is the most vulnerable children (those facing multiple levels of discrimination, particularly due to their race, class and/or gender, on top of age-based disadvantage and geographic location that experience the most pervasive violation of their rights (UNICEF, 2012, p. 13; UNICEF, 2014b, p. 3-4)). While there are many vulnerable populations in relation to many different climate-related challenges, children “constitute an extremely large percentage of those who are most vulnerable, and the implications, especially for the youngest children, can be long term” (Bartlett, 2008, p. 514).

But vulnerability is a loaded term

While children are more exposed than adults to a variety of GCC impacts, due to their developmental stage, not all children are equally vulnerable, nor are all children more vulnerable than all adults. Given the complex socio-economic and cultural interactions inherent in the climate crisis, the field of Intersectionality Studies (Cho, Crenshaw and McCall, 2013) provides a foundation for examining how issues of race, class and gender as well as age impact on how GCC is (or isn’t) addressed at local, national and international levels. The CRC defines children as people up to the age of 18. Thus, it is necessary to take into account the different capacities, capabilities, and vulnerabilities of different age groups. A one-year old has vastly different needs and capacities compared to a 17-year old. Equally important are the differences within age groups that a homogenous approach masks. A middle class 10-year old boy living with two parents in a well-resourced environment in the Global North is likely to be significantly less vulnerable to GCC than a 10-year old girl in a female-headed household in a slum in the Global South.

Children are generally lumped into a broad ‘vulnerable’ group in GCC policy and strategy documents from international to local levels, actively eroding their rights by systemic exclusion (Tanner, 2010). The constituents of this group tend to include women, indigenous peoples, children and people with disabilities – essentially everyone but white males. This results in a generalized failure to meet the needs of any one sub-group and serves to erase differences within groups. Three examples should suffice to highlight this issue. The Cancun Agreements (a key guiding document for the post-2015 GCC framework) mentions children once when referring to the potential consequences of actions to curb emissions on vulnerable groups, “in particular women and children” (UNFCCC, 2010, p. 15). Given that women and children make up the majority of the world’s population, one can only hope that all GCC action would be cognizant of the potential impacts it has on them. Things get slightly better at the national level in some countries. The Bangladesh National Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, for example, mentions children 15 times, but only ever in the context of a homogenous status of vulnerability, along with women (Government of Bangladesh, 2008). There is no mention of increasing children’s agency or voice. Children are also largely absent even where national governments have sought to localize their adaptation strategies. As an example, the process adopted by the Government of Nepal to take their National Adaptation Program of Action and create a Local Adaptation Program of Action renders children completely invisible by subsuming them under the catch-all ‘community’ (Government of Nepal, n.d. and 2010).

Vested political and socio-economic interests are a crucial factor constraining action to curb emissions as governments and corporations struggle to maintain the status quo where the environment is treated as an externality and short-term profits and political expediencies outweigh long-term sustainability. Similarly, existing power dynamics—including those relating to race, class and gender and their intersections—within and between countries are a significant factor in determining which adaptation strategies are adopted and to what extent they are implemented. As Pelling (2011) argues:

The power held by an actor in a social system, translated into a stake for upholding the status quo, also plays a great role in shaping an actor’s support or resistance towards adaptation or the building of adaptive capacity when this has implications for change in social, economic, cultural or political relations, or in the way natural assets are viewed and used (p. 5).

Although scientific understanding of GCC is increasing, policy is not keeping abreast of science. If we are to avoid the worst consequences for the most vulnerable, a significant shift towards evidence-based policy needs to occur. If it has been too difficult for States to realize child rights in the largely stable climatic conditions that have characterized the Holocene, what will happen to children as the impacts of climate change intensify in the Anthropocene?

The implications of GCC are far-reaching and potentially catastrophic, but governments and communities delay action. These delays will inevitably cost lives and livelihoods. Children are inherently vulnerable to the impacts of GCC and, in many ways, have the most to lose in a changing climate. The following section provides an overview of children’s vulnerability, setting the scene for a shift to a child-centered approach to action on GCC.

Children’s vulnerability to climatic change

There are several reasons why children, in general, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of GCC: physiology, psychology, and exclusion; which, combined, exacerbate the existing multiple layers of discrimination that many children experience on a daily basis. Discrimination based on poverty (relative or absolute), gender, class, religion, race and disability is also just as common for children as adults. But for children, the fact that age-based discrimination is pervasive and institutionalized (Child Rights Information Network, 2009) makes these other challenges more complex.

Physiological impacts

The most evident and obvious reason children are more vulnerable than (most) adults to GCC is physiological as “they are physiologically and metabolically less able than adults at adapting to heat and other climate-related exposure” (UNICEF, 2011, p. 1). Children are affected by nearly all the conceivable impacts of GCC – including immediate direct physical impacts (from extreme weather events like typhoons and floods); health impacts (from increased diar- rheal and respiratory disease and changing ranges of vector-borne diseases); and the more gradual impacts of under-nutrition and malnourishment (Sheffield and Landrigan, 2001).

Children are more likely than adults to be injured or killed in a disaster (UNICEF, 2007). A 2007 estimate found that up to 175 million additional children will be affected by natural disasters annually by 2015 (Save the Children, 2007). Taking a broader view, the Global Humanitarian Forum (2009, p. 9) estimated that “325 million people are seriously affected by climate change every year,” leading to an estimate that around 300,000 deaths are caused by GCC annually. With children making up a significant proportion of the population in the Global South, the number of children killed by the impacts of GCC is already unacceptably high and the potential future impacts on the world’s children are catastrophic.

Sheffield and Landrigan (2001, p. 292) estimate the number of deaths directly attributable to an increased disease burden due to GCC in the year 2000 at more than 150,000. Eighty-eight per cent of these deaths were children under five. With estimates that an additional 310 million people will suffer ill health attributable to GCC by 2030 (Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009), the number of children suffering will increase exponentially. It is the most marginalized children (those suffering multiple layers of discrimination) who will be the first and worst affected as GCC impacts intensify.

Psychological impacts

Children are also among those most susceptible to the psychological impacts of GCC (Frumkin 2008; Farrant, Armstrong and Albrecht 2012). Doherty and Clayton (2011, p. 265) distinguish three levels of psychological impacts of GCC: acute and direct impacts, such as mental health injuries associated with more frequent and powerful weather events; indirect and vicarious impacts, for example, intense emotions associated with observation of climate change effects at broader scales; and psychosocial impacts that include heat-related violence, resource conflicts, migration and dislocation, post-disaster adjustment and chronic environmental stress. Children are susceptible to all of these impacts, either directly (by witnessing and experiencing the death and destruction associated with extreme weather events) or indirectly (with disaster events or chronic climate-related malnutrition impacting on the cognitive development of fetuses and infants).

The physical and psychological impacts will, in many cases, reinforce each other. For example, the physical impacts of climate-linked food insecurity include malnourishment and stunting, and inadequate nutrition has been linked to developmental and behavioral problems in children (Wachs, 2000; Tanner and Finn-Stevenson, 2002). Psychological issues in children have also been linked to their experience of disasters (the majority of which are weather- related). A study of children impacted by Hurricane Katrina found that they were four times more likely than before the storm to be depressed or anxious and twice as likely to have behavioral problems. The most affected children were those who were more socio-economically marginalized prior to the disaster (Abramson, Garfield and Redlener, 2007).


Article 12 of the CRC provides:

States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child” (UN 1989, art. 12).

While Article 12 should not be interpreted as giving children complete autonomy in decision-making processes, “it does introduce a radical and profound challenge to traditional attitudes, which assume that children should be seen and not heard” (Lansdown, 2001, p. 2). Sadly, the general assumption seems to be that children have little to offer in the way of solutions to local challenges and that they should, essentially, be quiet and do what they are told. Seballos et al. (2011, p. 39) found that adults’ perceptions of children’s agency is a crucial factor in whether children are able to effectively engage in disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities. This finding is highly likely to be echoed in children’s engagement in community-based adaptation actions given the significant overlaps between community-level responses to disasters and GCC.

While education systems can reinforce existing social inequalities (Lynch and Baker, 2005; Haveman and Smeeding, 2006), it may also be true that the rote learning methodology still widely used in the Global South reinforces the perception that children are ‘empty vessels’ to be filled with knowledge. Anecdotal evidence from child-centered DRR and GCC projects that the international NGOs Plan International and Save the Children have supported in the Global South shows that a child-centered approach to teaching and learning creates an atmosphere where children feel more confident to provide input and create innovative solutions to issues their communities struggle to solve (Mitchell and Borchard, 2014). This is particularly relevant to the impacts of natural disasters, climate change and environmental degradation, which are all too often pushed aside. These projects generally run outside of school hours through ‘clubs’ but children involved have often expressed a desire to have their regular classes conducted in a more child-centered way. Curriculum development, however, is the purview of government agencies and, in many countries, making changes to the way classes are run is extremely difficult. Even when the government is largely supportive and the topics are uncontroversial, introducing new ideas and topics is a slow process. As long as most children remain voiceless at home and in their communities, and have their agency disregarded at school, their ability to influence decision-making processes and outcomes will remain minimal.

The child-centered approach in the context of climate change

The child-centered approach to development is based on child rights and places children at the heart of efforts to secure their rights and fulfill their development aspirations. It works to directly target children – particularly the most vulnerable, excluded and marginalized – and works to overcome the disadvantages children face by helping them (and their caregivers) understand and combat multiple layers of discrimination. The approach is also about engaging with support structures and institutions at all levels (households, communities, local and national governments and international organizations) to secure children’s rights. And it can be an effective way for development and civil society organizations to access and support communities to manage the impacts of GCC, especially as members may be (understandably) more concerned with more immediate needs.

While community-based responses to GCC are rapidly growing, the partici- pation of children in these actions is minimal, despite research showing that children have much to contribute to building community resilience to GCC (Tanner et al., 2009). Putting children at the center of responses to GCC can have unexpected and innovative results. For example, a program that Save the Children supported in Kenya worked with school students across the country to help them better understand the implications of GCC for them and their communities and asked them to find local solutions to reduce risk and build resilience. Participating children developed innovative solutions including: enhancing rain water harvesting (using plastic bottles to create low-cost gutter systems to channel water to tanks); more sustainable fuel sources (using coal ash and waste paper to make cleaner burning cooking briquettes); waste reduction/recycling (weaving discarded plastic bags into re-useable shopping bags to sell in the local market); and food security (creating kitchen gardens utilizing drought-tolerant crop varieties and organic principles) (Interclimate Network, 2012).

Save the Children is not alone in reaching the conclusion that child-centered approaches can reap significant benefits. A study by UNICEF and Plan International (2011) found:

the benefits of child-focused approaches to adaptation are likely to be high – because children are numerous and experience the impacts of climate change more acutely than other groups and over a longer period, the avoided losses associated with adaptation to both sudden disasters and systemic climate change are significant” (p. 24).

To be effective, child-centered approaches cannot just be ‘business-as-usual’ with token child representation: children from all demographics must be involved in decision-making processes from the very start of a program.

In the context of continuing uncertainty of timing and magnitude, but increasing certainty that things will get worse, how can we most effectively reduce all children’s vulnerability, while balancing the need to recognize the high variability in children’s needs and capacities with the pragmatism of treating them as a homogenous group? One means of doing so is to shift from building adaptive capacity to fostering resilience.

From adaptive capacity to resilience

One of the most effective means of reducing children’s vulnerability to the impacts of GCC is to build their capacity to adapt to the range of changes it may bring in their lifetime. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007, p. 21) defines adaptive capacity as “the ability of a system to adjust to climate change … to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences.” Building children’s adaptive capacity is likely to prove one of the most effective strategies to enhance the resilience of whole communities over time. After all, it is today’s children who will bear the brunt of GCC.

While including children’s specific needs and capacities in adaptation planning and actions may be perceived as a burden on governments, communities and organizations, Bartlett (2008) argues:

there are strong synergies between what children need and the adaptations required to reduce or respond to more general risks … It has generally been found that neighbourhoods and cities that work better for children tend to work better for everyone, and this principle undoubtedly applies also to the adaptations…called for by climate change (p. 514).

While taking a child-centered approach to building adaptive capacity can pay dividends for whole communities, there is a risk that simply looking to build children’s adaptive capacity will result in one-size-fits-all approaches and, consequently, fail to address the range of underlying structural inequalities that many children face. This pitfall can be avoided by integrating climate risk and resilience building into existing child-centered community development projects working within specific sectors. Moving from an ‘adaptive capacity’ approach to a ‘resilience’ approach helps to broaden understandings of what children need and the multiple challenges they face in achieving their rights. A healthier, wealthier, better educated individual will have a higher adaptive capacity and, therefore, will be likely to have a greater level of resilience to the impacts of GCC (Dodman, Ayers and Huq, 2009).

Whereas adaptation can be seen as a series of actions designed to avoid or minimize the negative impacts of GCC, resilience should not be understood as a fixed state or an outcome. Rather, it should be seen as a process that helps communities cope with a variety of climatic and non-climatic shocks, and helps address the broader range of challenges that face communities in the Global South (Dodman, Ayers and Huq, 2009).

Resilience is “context specific, and will change over time as children, communities and institutions evolve” (Save the Children, 2013, pp. 3-4). While the approach can be an effective tool to address myriad challenges, the concept can be so broad that it becomes impractical. To avoid this, it is helpful to view resilience as a product of testing and creativity rather than something that can be developed in the same way across place and time. We need to let communities and individuals experiment with different tools and approaches to building their own resilience – and this will necessarily involve “safe failures” (Wilkinson, 2011, p. 162).

A key means of achieving these outcomes is to include resilience building options and opportunities within existing processes and programs. When compared to standalone adaptation projects, integrated actions are more likely to: be more sustainable (building on existing structures rather than working in parallel); promote local ownership and trust; help safeguard the outcomes of other development activities by introducing ‘climate-smart’ strategies; and ensure that adaptive actions are tailored to the specific local context and anchored in a sector already identified as significant to the community. Risk reduction and resilience building approaches also have the benefit of being flexible enough to target the specific vulnerabilities and inequalities of a specific group of children (or even a particular child), thereby avoiding the one-size-fits-all approach to adaptation (Mitchell and Bouchard, 2014).


It is clear that GCC presents an unparalleled challenge to the sustainability of human development, and that children, as a group, are particularly vulnerable to its impacts. Children are almost completely absent from the development and implementation of GCC policy and action at all levels. Yet, having a different range of vulnerabilities (often) distinct to other ‘vulnerable groups,’ their specific needs and capacities should be distinctly addressed within policy documents and development processes. Indeed, how children’s vulnerabilities to GCC are shaped by layers of discrimination faced on a daily basis is also a key element of an effective, child-centered response. Adopting a child-centered approach to reducing climate risk and building resilience at local, national and international levels would, necessarily, increase the voice and agency of children in the deci- sion-making processes that directly impact their levels of vulnerability to GCC. Initial implementation of this approach is likely to result in a highlighting of children as a homogeneously vulnerable group, thereby masking the important differences within and between age groups and erasing the impacts of other identifiers. However, as a first step, getting children on the agenda in the formation and implementation of climate policy is more important than highlighting the degrees of difference of vulnerability and capacity between children. Adults are, after all, the caretakers of the planet for today’s children and future generations. It is our responsibility to ensure our institutions respect and protect children’s rights – especially in the context of a changing climate.


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