The idea of climate change can seem so huge and impenetrable the temptation might be to panic, distract ourselves or turn away in despair. A better idea might be to consider our littlest citizens and focus on solutions to spare them the worst effects of climate disruption. In doing so, says Joe Waters, co-founder and CEO of Capita, an independent, nonpartisan think tank, we are much more likely to lay down a path for a workable future for all of us.
Children in their early years are not only uniquely susceptible to the effects of climate change, but they are also the key to solving its challenge, he says.
Capita envisions a future in which children and their families can realize their full potential in a “just, peaceful, prosperous society on a healthier, cleaner and safer planet.” In pursuit of that objective, Capita has released the first in a series of papers that will explore how young children, families and communities can flourish in this time of climate transition. Capita commissioned the paper, “Protecting Our Future Now: A Policy Framework for Climate Change and the Early Years,” to support the Capita/Aspen Early Years Climate Action Task Force members in thinking about the most promising approaches to accomplish that goal. The task force will publish its first U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan later this year.
According to the journal Pediatrics, 88% of the illnesses, injuries and deaths due to climate change occur to children, particularly those living in poor and under-served areas. Look at any devastation related to climate change, and it lands on small children and the most vulnerable communities first and hardest.
The paper’s key messages are:
In the face of climate change, focusing on our youngest children and families is an important avenue for ensuring an equitable, sustainable future for all.
Aligning early years and climate change policies, practices and financing protects those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and drives action on adaptation, mitigation and reducing loss and damage.
Presently, children are barely in the picture in the global campaign to address climate disruption, though according to the World Health Organization (WHO), young children’s developing bodies and brains bear the brunt of impacts from the fossil fuel consumption that’s driving climate change. According to the journal Pediatrics, 88% of the illnesses, injuries and deaths due to climate change occur to children, particularly those living in poor and under-served areas. Look at any devastation related to climate change, and it lands on small children and the most vulnerable communities first and hardest.
“That’s a life-altering statistic,” Waters says. “On the basis of that information alone, we have to completely reimagine our public health, health care and all the other systems of support for children in the face of climate change. How do we create environments, ecologies that enable flourishing, despite all the negative changes in our environment that are going to happen because of climate disruption?”
The redeeming news is that supporting young children and their families is a powerful tool to address both the short-term threats and long-term challenges of climate disruption, Waters says. Meeting the needs of young children and their families today can create the foundation for resilient communities going forward. Doing so doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, though it may require reallocating some resources.
A Path to Action
Climate financing is essential to implementing the quantum leap for humanity needed to successfully navigate the cascading effects of climate disruption; it also is one arena in which the failure to take young children into account is most blatant. According to a paper on climate change by the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative—comprising UNICEF, Save the Children and Plan International and funded by Capita—an analysis of climate finance showed that children are being dramatically neglected in climate funding commitments globally. Just 2.4% of climate finance from multilateral climate funds—a cumulative $1.2 billion—can be said to support projects incorporating child-responsive activities.
The change if such child awareness were embedded in climate financing mechanisms would be comprehensive—everything from strengthening our early care and education system to be more resilient in the face of climate impacts, to altering infrastructure to offer more shade.
“I want to be very clear that we are not asking the early care and education sector to solve climate change,” Waters says. “Climate disruption demands that we take a different lens, a different frame, to all our work.
“Climate change is not an issue as much as it is a context,” he says. “So, we must reimagine all our systems and infrastructure across society for this context—as we did with Covid, which showed us that it’s doable. At the end of the day, government is the largest mechanism by which we tackle massive issues in our society. I’m unapologetic about the idea that the place where you can drive the biggest change over the long haul to deal with massive societal problems is government. It’s where we do big things together.”
What that new context might look like is as varied as communities themselves.
“Take cities as an example,” he says. “Cities are already making investments in resilience, to adapt to the effects of climate change today. Cities are setting up cooling centers to support people who don’t have air conditioning. Are those child-friendly? Are there places to play? Are there places for parents to nurse their babies?
“That’s one low-cost adaptation a city can make. Shade equity is another. Do the areas where our lowest-income, most vulnerable children live have adequate shade? Generally, not. But they could have. And we can clearly propose that, yes, this is good for everyone – not just our youngest. Let’s focus our efforts—whether shade-equity or similar solutions—in those areas first. Let’s prioritize those things.”
Promoting the well-being of children in the face of climate disruption would involve strengthening communities and relationships, as well as providing parents and other caregivers with the knowledge and resources to support their children in a climate-related event.
“How do we strengthen our early care and education system to be more resilient in the face of climate impacts?” Waters says. “To withstand heat waves, to withstand bad air-quality days and so forth.
“Our pediatric health care system is generally not attuned to providing anticipatory guidance to parents when there is a forecast of an extreme heat wave. That’s the type of investment in an early-warning system that needs to be made so parents and other caregivers have the tools they need to protect the health of their children.
“If you take a child health and well-being lens to climate change, you’ll see that A.) All the systems that support children and families have a great deal they could be doing now with appropriate investment to support healthy development, and B.) All the other institutions that exist and are focused on resilience and adaptation could be taking much more robust child-sensitive and child-responsive lens to their work.”
This paper encourages the U.S. to take a leadership role in addressing climate change and making the lives of young children a priority in that effort. As the country with the largest historical and per capita greenhouse gas on earth, it is critical that the U.S. advocates for and supports efforts to mitigate climate disruption. The group urges the U.S. to make financial contributions appropriate to the scope of the challenge, as well as bring forth the nation’s best minds and best efforts to addressing the many issues involved.
“The United States needs to be leading the world with investment, with putting children and families the world over first,” Waters says. “We’ve contributed to this problem but we’re also one of the most innovative, creative, forward-leaning countries in the world, particularly when it comes to new ideas and new technologies.
“It’s an opportunity for us to do what Americans do best and have done historically, from the New Deal to NASA. This is a moonshot opportunity for America.”
K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.