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We must help our youngest navigate risks from climate change

They can’t stand up for themselves, but their world is in danger.

Child playing
Extreme weather events, longer and more intensive heat waves and climate-related displacement will increasingly be major sources of toxic stress, which can alter the development of a child’s brain architecture.
REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal

The population most vulnerable to climate change is the one with the least ability to stand up for itself: young children.

The climate change era is already here: A heat wave in mid-June put more than 125 million Americans under extreme heat alerts, while the driest conditions in over a millennium led to raging wildfires in the Southwest and unprecedented flooding hit Montana.

Global warming poses immense threats to early childhood development — so much so that last summer UNICEF declared the climate crisis a “child’s rights crisis.”

Yet little attention has been paid within the U.S. to this intersection of climate change and childhood. That’s why the think tank Capita and the Aspen Institute are teaming up to launch the first-ever national Early Years Climate Action Task Force.

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Climate change is already having enduring impacts on children’s health, development and flourishing. Extreme weather events, longer and more intensive heat waves and climate-related displacement will increasingly be major sources of toxic stress, which can alter the development of a child’s brain architecture in ways that are likely to “impair memory, executive function, and decision-making in later life,” according to the American Psychological Association, or APA.

Climate change also threatens children’s well-being in other ways, such as by increasing air pollution and the prevalence of new (or resurgent) diseases. The damage is not limited to children’s bodies: Climate change-enhanced weather also causes destruction of their physical care environments such as homes, playgrounds, pediatric clinics and child care programs. A recent study shows that compared with a decade ago, schools in many parts of the country are losing double the number of instructional days to extreme heat.

Young children under the age of 8 are uniquely at risk, as their developing bodies and brains take these blows especially hard. For instance, young children breathe in and out at a much higher rate than teens or adults, and due to their small stature inhale air closer to the ground, where pollution concentrates. Similarly, young bodies are made up of a higher percentage of water, and they have higher metabolic rates, meaning that they can dehydrate much faster.

And, in terms of mental health, according to the APA, “after climate events, children typically demonstrate more severe distress than adults.” Eco-anxiety is already on the rise among teens, while today’s and tomorrow’s young children will be contending with the climate crisis long after older generations have passed on.

All of these impacts can negatively influence academic performance, health, relationship formation and other long-term life outcomes.

So where do we go from here?

The early childhood movement must contend with climate change; the climate movement can advance its goals by centering young children and their parents — a largely untapped constituency. We can and should do more at this intersection, whether it’s by ensuring child care programs have clean and efficient air-conditioning and air-filtration systems that run on renewable energy, by offering age-appropriate climate education for young children and their families or by establishing public policies (such as Wales’ Well-Being of Future Generations Act) that account for climate change impacts on children.

This is also where the Early Years Climate Action Task Force — made up of policymakers and parents, leaders in the early childhood and climate movements, academics and pediatricians — can potentially make a difference. Its charge is to recommend a concrete action plan by the middle of next year that can be implemented and adapted by the early years sector, the climate sector and the nation as a whole.

Inspired by the catalytic work of Aspen’s K12 Climate Action commission, the task force will hold a series of listening sessions with content-area experts and people who have already experienced major climate change effects. They will focus on communities disproportionately impacted by climate change, including areas with high populations of Indigenous, Black, and/or Latino individuals; rural and urban communities with high populations of low-income families; and communities in geographies particularly vulnerable to climate change.

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In the end, the impact of all efforts to improve early childhood health, development, learning and well-being face a ceiling if we don’t address climate change. As the futurist Alex Steffen puts it, “the planetary crisis is not an issue, but an era.”

It is time for the nation to reckon with the impacts of this new normal on its youngest residents.

Elliot Haspel is an early childhood policy expert who serves as senior adviser to the Early Years Climate Action Task Force. Laura Schifter is a senior fellow leading K12 Climate Action at the Aspen Institute. This commentary originally appeared in The Hechinger Report.