Early Childhood and Climate Change Are Connected in More Ways Than You...

Early Learning

Early Childhood and Climate Change Are Connected in More Ways Than You Might Think

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Nov 22, 2022

Early Childhood and Climate Change Are Connected in More Ways Than You Might Think

As world leaders return home from the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), an annual international climate meeting that was held in Egypt this year, they have many action items to attend to. But few, if any, regard one of the populations most vulnerable to climate change: young children.

This is a nexus—kids and climate—where research is becoming more and more robust, yet public awareness and understanding lag far behind.

Elliot Haspel hopes to change that, and soon. Haspel is a leading voice on early childhood education and author of “Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It.” He recently joined Capita, a nonpartisan think tank, as a senior fellow where he will oversee the growth of the “Childhood Climate Fund,” the first global philanthropic fund focused on the intersection of early childhood and climate change.

For someone who is regularly sounding the alarm on urgent issues plaguing the field of early childhood education, from system-wide dysfunction to poor working conditions to uncompetitive pay, we wondered: Why climate change? Why now?

So we asked Haspel to tell us more about his interest in this intersection, and to explain why the fight to improve early childhood is inextricably linked to the fight to address climate change.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Your work is shifting to focus on the intersection of early childhood and climate change. Can you explain how the two are connected?

Elliot Haspel: Climate change poses enormous threats to early childhood development, so in my view, all of our efforts to improve child and family well-being are gonna be capped if we don't address climate change.

At the same time, I think the efforts to mitigate and fight climate change are really missing a grounding force in children and families. That's what I think the intersection is. The threats to young children in particular have been because young children—and I mean prenatal to age 8—are uniquely vulnerable to just about every impact of climate change. And that’s especially because of their biology. The developing brains and bodies of young children take much harder blows from things like wildfire smoke and air pollution, from experiencing natural disasters that are climate-enhanced, from having disruptions to their caregiving situations that are caused by climate-enhanced storms.

A good example is air pollution. Young children actually take in the particulate matter from air pollution at a much higher rate than older youth or adults because they breathe in and out quite a bit faster. They are smaller in stature, so they're closer to the ground, where the pollution concentrates. They're inhaling the particulate matter much, much more than adults. And it can not only mess with their physical development, like respiratory issues, but it also affects brain development. There are even some linkages between air pollution exposure in early childhood and the risk factor for mental illness later in life. These are really serious threats that young children are facing, which largely have not been addressed to date.

Beyond the physical and neurological impacts, what about the impacts of climate change on the experience of being a child?

At a very raw level, there are simply more days of the year in most places in the U.S. that are so hot you can't reasonably go outside for very long, or there is such severe weather you can't go outside. Kids have fewer days that they could reasonably be outside playing in nature than they could before, and that’s for a variety of reasons: the number of extreme precipitation days, which are at historic highs, the number of extreme storms, the number of heat waves. Heat waves are getting longer. Heat waves are getting hotter. And all of that impacts childhood.

And then it also reinforces a kind of cycle where, if kids are not able to be outside regularly, then they're inside and they're often on screens. They're just not creating the same relationship with nature.

One example that's stuck with me is the Pacific Northwest “heat dome” last year, when the public pools had to close because the ground around it was unsafe to walk on. It has always been hot; we should be clear about that. But the sheer intensity and length of it is so much more that it is impacting children's relationship with nature, in an era where we already had what author Richard Louv called “nature-deficit disorder.” We already had concerns about kids being inside too much, on screens too much. Now climate change is really changing the way that they experience nature.

You've also written that a lot of kids are part of families that may be displaced by climate change. Can you say a little bit about that?

In addition to the horrific hurricanes, the extreme wildfires like the ones in California and Colorado, and the tornadoes that hit Kentucky, there's what I call the “everyday disasters.” And a lot of that is flooding. So in cities—Detroit was one where they really experienced that a couple of years ago—extreme precipitation is causing these huge flooding events. And if your house or apartment floods out, or certainly if your house burns down or is decimated, yeah, your entire life is turned upside down.

Groups like the American Psychological Association are very clear that young children, and children in general, experience the psychological impacts of natural disasters significantly worse than adults. It's hugely disruptive to the entire family and often causes all sorts of instability to the parents, which again impacts the kids. So the more that we see American communities ravaged by everything from these truly dramatic natural disasters to the more mundane, huge rainstorms, it's really going to continue to impact children. We’re having this conversation [on Nov. 17], right before Buffalo, New York, is scheduled to get several feet of snow, so the “global weirding,” as Katharine Hayhoe says, is certainly upon us and that really does impact children.

The world’s most influential political leaders have been in Egypt for the COP27 climate conference. Are they, too, thinking and talking about the impact of climate on early childhood?

Not enough, if they are at all. There is a coalition of children's rights and children's advocacy groups that has been at COP, led by UNICEF. They are really trying to bring it front and center. This is the first COP at which there was a full children's pavilion. There was a 13-year-old who was able to present on the floor of COP for the first time.

So there are outside efforts to try to center children, which I think are great, but it's not a huge part of the conversation. And in particular, young children—a toddler, a preschooler—are not going to the floor of COP. So they are in some ways the most vulnerable and the most disenfranchised group or population of any humans. So I think there's a really significant need to put young children and their families front and center in the climate conversation.

What sorts of solutions exist? What is the likelihood that new solutions will emerge, and from where?

The first thing I'll say is that I think many of the solutions are out there in many of the most affected communities, right? Because they're having to deal with it. I heard from a doula in Louisiana who was talking about how doulas and midwives have had to handle hurricanes and how when someone goes into labor in the middle of a hurricane, they might be the only birthing professionals around who can help them. … In many frontline communities, many of which are communities of color, a lot of the solutions and necessary adaptations are happening already.

But that being said, I think there are a couple of buckets. One is thinking about our child care systems and what they need to be able to be resilient against the known impacts of climate change.

We talked about air pollution, right? One way you can deal with air pollution is by making sure that every child care program and every pediatric health provider has a good air filtration system. In terms of the funding for that, I think philanthropy probably has a role to play in piloting some research and figuring out what the most cost-effective intervention might be. We already know how strapped child care programs are, so we can't ask them to take on another expense. But how can we improve air filtration in a cost-effective way? What are the ways we can help states and localities understand that this should be part of the funding that goes to these programs? And ultimately, should air filtration be a factor in a licensing decision or a licensing requirement for child care programs? That’s not going to happen on its own, but I do think philanthropy has a role to play.

The fund within Capita that we're incubating is funding a pilot project on air quality in Richmond, Virginia, which is working with Yale's Child Study Center on that issue, making sure that we're upgrading HVAC systems and particularly air conditioning systems in places that we know are getting hotter. So there are ways we can build resilience into systems.

Another example is we know that by greening schoolyards and playgrounds, by getting that asphalt out of there, adding in shade structures, and painting cooling materials on roofs and on roads that surround these places—there are ways we can combat heat island effects. So they’re out there, these solutions. It's a question of whether we can organize them as a way to make sure that all children are able to flourish in the era of climate change, as opposed to having them be treated as afterthoughts or isolated, unfunded or lightly funded interventions.

So that's one component. I think the question of parent education is another important one. I don't think parents—or child care providers, frankly—understand very well what impact climate change is having on kids. Often, when we talk about climate and kids, it's in some abstract future way of, ‘Well, we need to help the planet for the next generation,’ but the current generation is being harmed. Children are being harmed every day by climate change in the United States. And there's nowhere that's spared from it. And yet, I don't think it's a doom and gloom story. Knowing that we can actually make our communities healthier, we can make them safer, we can make them stronger, in ways that support child development and community beautification, will ultimately help mitigate climate change. So there's a positive story to tell, but I think we need to bring parents into it. And it starts with education.

For early childhood educators and advocates of early childhood education who may be skeptical that this is the issue to direct focus on within the field, when there is just so much else that needs addressing, what would you say?

Focusing on the climate is additive, in a couple of ways. One, it is supporting our direct goals as an early childhood field or sector. So it is supporting school readiness. It is having child care programs that are not flooding out or burning down or having their AC break so fewer kids are dealing with climate trauma from displacement or air pollution. All of that directly helps our goals of making sure that every child is having maximally positive early childhood experiences. And two, it also allies the early childhood field much more closely with the climate field. The climate movement is a better funded and more politically powerful movement than early childhood. And I think that tying the two together—the fate of caring for the land and the planet and caring for children—is potentially a very powerful reframe and a very powerful alliance that could really move together.

That's my argument. Yes, look, the child care crisis is raging. I regularly wax poetic about the need for a fully publicly funded child care system. And I still am in that fight every day.

The climate writer Alex Steffen has a line that I quote a lot, which is that climate change
“isn't an issue, it's an era.” It subsumes all the other issues. So it's not like child care and early childhood education is just coming alongside climate, and it's just like, OK, now we're tying together issue A and issue B. No, climate is the context. And we have to reckon with that. And I think there's a way to reckon with that reality that actually will advance the goals of the sector. And if we don't, I think we're going to see a lot of our goals end up unrealized.

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