To Increase Their Impact, the Early-Childhood and Climate Movements Need to Join Forces
Around the world, vulnerable children and overwhelmed parents face a growing wave of threats from the rapidly changing climate. Those threats, including longer and more intense heat waves, worsening air quality, floods, disease, and trauma resulting from natural disasters, are harmful to all of us. But they are especially damaging to young children whose rapidly developing bodies put them at higher risk.
Children under age 9 are physiologically and psychologically distinct from older youth and adults. They breathe at a much faster rate, dehydrate quicker, and are more susceptible to waterborne illness. All of this means they
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Around the world, vulnerable children and overwhelmed parents face a growing wave of threats from the rapidly changing climate. Those threats, including longer and more intense heat waves, worsening air quality, floods, disease, and trauma resulting from natural disasters, are harmful to all of us. But they are especially damaging to young children, whose rapidly developing bodies put them at higher risk.
Children under age 9 are physiologically and psychologically distinct from older youths and adults. They breathe at a much faster rate, dehydrate quicker, and are more susceptible to waterborne illness. All of this means they experience the effects of air pollution, extreme heat, and water scarcity more acutely, leading to increased incidences of childhood asthma, kidney damage, and even the risk of cognitive decline and mental illness as they get older.
A recent Unicef report — “The Climate Crisis Is a Child Rights Crisis” — found that “globally, approximately 1 billion children (nearly half of the world’s children) live in extremely high-risk countries.” In less affluent nations, extreme heat without adequate air conditioning has led to spikes in preterm births and stillbirths. Air pollution has stunted children’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development. And more than 700 children under age 5 die every day from diarrhea caused by a lack of clean water. These tragic trends will worsen significantly as the climate crisis intensifies.
Current social, economic, and political systems are not prepared. Visionary leadership is desperately needed, and philanthropy is in a strong position to fill that role. Specifically, grant makers can forge connections between the climate and early-childhood movements. Despite the interconnection between the two, advocates in each area largely work separately — lessening the impact of both movements.
The climate movement is limited in its reach because parents and caregivers have not been mobilized effectively on behalf of children who are too young to act on their own. While pockets of activism exist, parents are not being heard on the global stage.
Similarly, many early-childhood advocates and donors don’t view climate change as directly relevant to their work. But climate change puts all their efforts at risk by harming the physical and mental health of the children they seek to help. How effective is a child-care center that is destroyed by wildfires? How helpful are school-readiness programs when children are experiencing the fallout of devastating floods?
Each movement has assets the other needs. The climate movement brings funding and political clout, while the early-childhood movement brings a massive number of constituents and the emotional weight of young children. Together, they have the knowledge and skills to drive action toward a healthier, cleaner, and safer planet.
Philanthropy can lead the way by doing away with the barriers that separate funding for early-childhood and climate-change work — and by connecting the efforts of these two powerful movements.
Grant makers that support early childhood and those that fund climate issues should consider collaboratively adopting the following strategies:
Remove roadblocks to parent and caregiver action. Grant makers should identify effective parent movements and work to expand them. Pockets of inspiring activism do exist. Moms Clean Air Force and Mothers Out Front are the twin pillars of parent climate advocacy in the United States, while the international organization Our Kids° Climate has members in 23 nations. However, these groups tend to be relatively limited in scope and funding. Increased philanthropic investment would allow these groups to expand their reach to parents and educate them about the collective actions they can take against a problem that often feels overwhelmingly large.
Even simple steps, such as funding child care for parents participating in protests or legislator visits, can significantly increase parent involvement, especially among parents of color and other historically disenfranchised groups who are most affected by climate change. Their voices and ideas must be central to this work.
Identify and fund creative solutions at the intersection of climate change and childhood. Foundations can test and expand projects that protect children from the effects of climate change — and that allow them to flourish regardless. This includes investing in heat-mitigation projects, such as planting trees, covering roads and roofs with cooling coating materials, and adding water misters at bus stops, particularly in low-income neighborhoods where young children and families congregate. Donor support can also help ensure that every child-care center and early-childhood classroom is equipped with HEPA filters and adequate air conditioning. Efforts such as the Trust for Public Land’s Community Schoolyards project, which is turning asphalt-covered schoolyards into small parks, need to be replicated across the country.
Fund research on the connection between the two movements. New research could explore and offer potential solutions to issues such as parenting and caregiving in the climate crisis and the effects of climate change on young children. Such research could be used to attract media attention to change how we think and talk about climate change and kids and influence policy debates. Research by the Frameworks Institute and Leading for Kids on the role of children in public-policy discussions is one potential model for how to shape storytelling about climate and young kids.
Develop a new generation of global leaders in the climate and early-childhood movements. Foundations should fund fellowships that support scholars and activists thinking about these topics in new ways, particularly parents and those most directly affected by the climate crisis. They can bring fresh ideas and solutions to the movement. The work of the Aspen Institute’s Ascend Fellowship, which brings together leaders working across disciplines to address economic mobility, is one example of an effective approach. Another is the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, which works with the OpEd Project to sponsor the Public Voices Fellowship on the Climate Crisis. The fellows in this program are intentionally drawn from a diverse range of backgrounds and fields.
Advance the cause of children in global and U.S. climate-policy efforts. Philanthropy should support efforts to develop legislative champions for children and the climate. Wales, for instance, recently named its first future-generations commissioner, who is responsible for ensuring that climate and other policies aren’t harmful to future generations. Miami now has a chief heat officer focused on combating the growing risk of extreme heat, especially on the most vulnerable populations. More leaders like these can help ensure that children’s rights are embedded into climate law and policy from the start.
It is the youngest among us who will bear the brunt of our damaged planet. We owe it to them to speak up on their behalf and do all we can to ensure they inherit a world where their own children can thrive. Together, the early-childhood and climate movements have the power to move the needle on climate change. They need to join forces before it’s too late.