The Early Years Climate Action Task Force: “A Natural and Necessary Focus” - Early Learning Nation

The Early Years Climate Action Task Force: “A Natural and Necessary Focus”

Maybe two generations aren’t enough.

Ascend at the Aspen Institute champions two-generation solutions, supporting the educational and career goals of children and their caregivers. Through the Ascend Fellowship, among other programs, Ascend engages systems, and policy and social impact leaders, to embrace these solutions.

Ascend recognizes that climate change and its consequences demand approaches that go beyond just two generations. With the recently launched Early Years Climate Action Task Force, Joe Waters, 2021 Ascend Fellow, aims to mobilize thinking and action for the next century and beyond. “There’s a huge need to rethink systems, and that’s why there’s a huge opportunity,” says Waters, co-founder and CEO of the think tank Capita (as well as a contributor to Early Learning Nation).

The Task Force is dedicated to forging new connections between the early education sectors (including allied fields such as pediatrics) and the growing movement to tackle the climate crisis. It is co-chaired by Diana Rauner, president of Start Early; and Antwanye Ford, president and CEO or Enlightened, Inc.

Upcoming. After a series of listening sessions beginning this fall, the Task Force will issue an Early Years Climate Action Plan featuring recommendations that encompass child-serving systems, businesses, nonprofits and philanthropy, and all levels of government. For example, foundations might be encouraged to target place-based grantmaking in regions that are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather and other manifestations of climate change.

Waters’s organization, founded in 2018, has consistently focused on climate. For example, Katherine Prince, vice president of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks, has written in a Capita blog that southeastern states are “prone to severe storms and have relatively high poverty levels.” Her conclusion: “Policy-makers need to start to address issues related to climate displacement and housing systemically and inclusively. Without their coordinated and concerted action, young children’s flourishing will falter.”

Waters credits Aspen Institute senior fellow Laura Schifter for spearheading climate action at the school level and laying the groundwork for viewing child development through a climate lens. In a deeply personal essay for Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (where she is a lecturer), Schifter captures the moment when she saw the overlap between education and climate. Watching her daughters play while reading a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought the urgency home for her.

Schifter’s identity as a mother reinforced her realization that climate change isn’t a “tomorrow problem,” telling me, “I kept thinking about the world that my daughters were going to inherit, and it’s not some apocalyptic climate disaster world that I picture but all the fights our country is having about migrants crossing our southern border.” Food and water scarcity puts pressure on all our geopolitical systems. Participation in the Climate Reality Project founded by Al Gore helped her frame her vision of equity-focused action prioritizing the communities most impacted by climate change as well as education inequities.

Waters has described climate change as “a natural and necessary focus for early childhood philanthropists, policy and systems leaders, providers and advocates.” He had his climate moment while reading David Wallace-Wells’s 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. “That book,” he says, “underscored the degree to which the crisis is transforming the world of our grandchildren—and their grandchildren, and so on.”

Wallace-Wells uses the phrase “climate caste system” to describe the poorest, living “in the marshes, the swamps, the floodplains, the inadequately irrigated places with the most vulnerable infrastructure,” and Waters sees evidence of this system across the country. He cites a story in the 19th about Louisiana’s Birthmark Doula Collective that trains emergency responders in best practices, filling a crucial gap in disaster response. The doulas distribute lifesaving kits and train emergency response professionals, advancing perinatal health but also building community resilience. (See also this 2013 article on doula support for Staten Island’s expectant and new mothers displaced by Superstorm Sandy.)

Waters points to the leadership of fellow Ascend Fellow Atiya Weiss, who leads the Burke Foundation in New Jersey, as an example of philanthropic efforts to activate the power of doulas to crisis-proof their communities.

“In partnership with community doulas,” Weiss explains, “We are creating new systems of support for expecting families through trusted messengers and community support. Expanding the community doula workforce is critical in laying the groundwork for the resilience needed as climate change becomes even more dire.”

“Climate change,” Weiss continues, “is one of the greatest threats to all future generations and we know its impact is worse for children living in communities of color. Joe understands the importance of safe, stable, nurturing relationships in these communities.”

While Schifter’s work in the education sector represents a novel approach to climate change, at least the K-12 sector has systems to build on. The far less cohesive early learning sector provides the Task Force with less infrastructure, but also less bureaucracy to navigate. “We have so much to learn about what’s going on across the country,” Waters says. “People on the ground are already doing the work.”


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Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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