5 Top Takeaways: Chelsea Clinton Moderates the “A Healthy Childhood in a Changing Climate” Conversation at Harvard Graduate School of Education - Early Learning Nation

5 Top Takeaways: Chelsea Clinton Moderates the “A Healthy Childhood in a Changing Climate” Conversation at Harvard Graduate School of Education

While we’re taking Early Learning Nation Studio on the road less often during the pandemic, we’re offering recaps—Top Takeaways—from important conversations, town halls, webinars and virtual events from the Early Learning field. Visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development, business, politics and more.

On January 31, the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) hosted a discussion exploring how the environment affects early childhood development and what we can do to address the impact of climate change on young children. Bridget Long, Dean and Saris Professor of Education and Economics at HGSE, opened the discussion, with featured guest Chelsea Clinton, Ph.D., Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation. Dr. Clinton then moderated a panel of experts that included:

Here are our top five takeaways:

1. The climate crisis is urgent and young children are particularly vulnerable. Dr. Long reminded viewers that 2023 was the hottest year on record, jeopardizing the health of young children in particular. She noted that our warming climate will “increase the prevalence of asthma, food insecurity and stressful experiences for both children and their caregivers” and have “undeniable negative effects on student learning.” She shared that the prenatal period through early childhood are “sensitive periods of development,” given the important physical and cognitive development that occur during these stages. “This is not some future challenge,” she warned. “It’s here now.”

Dr. Burghardt outlined three main categories that most affect young children’s biological systems: air, temperature and water. For example, higher temperatures “are leading to babies being born too early or too small,” and extreme wet weather events are causing floods in people’s homes that uproot children and their families for a length of time.

👉For Children and the Climate, the Future Is Now

2. We know the solutions to combat the effects of climate change on young children. The good news is, as the panelists confirmed, we have the knowledge, tools and even recent federal legislation to address climate change: The Inflation Reduction Act that became law in 2022 is predicted to reduce carbon emissions by around 40% by 2030.

Dr. Burghardt outlined three ways we can tackle climate change to improve conditions for young children.

First, we can address “harms” from extreme heat events through cooling centers and other mitigating strategies. Second, we can improve the conditions of places where young children spend their time through “geothermal heat pumps and other technologies that can make early care and elementary schools cooler.” Third, we can address the causes of the planet warming through leveraging solar technologies, “greening” the places where pregnant people and little children most frequent and installing smart surfaces like porous pavement as well as green roofs.

Dr. Austin cited the U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan that outlines ways the United States can support young children ages zero to 8 to thrive amidst ongoing climate change.

👉7 Reasons to Be Encouraged about the Planet Our Children Are Inheriting

3. Climate change affects some populations disproportionately, including Black children and families. According to a 2021 report by the Atlantic Council, Black children aged 17 and under are 34%-40% more likely to be diagnosed with asthma depending on the range of temperature increases based on where they live.

This disproportionate impact of climate change on Black children led NBCDI to list among its eight “essential outcomes” for Black children the ability to “breathe clean air and drink clean water.” As Dr. Austin noted, “What we’ve realized, especially as we are in conversations with the climate experts, is that each one of those eight outcomes will be completely disrupted by climate change if we’re not aggressively centering children in the climate work that we’re seeking to do.”

Dr. Basu also cited a statistic that anywhere from 5%- 13% of the racial achievement gap “can be attributed to heat by itself,” demonstrating the outsized impact that climate change has on children of color.

4. We must listen to and share stories of hope, not just data and despair. Dr. Basu shared his concern about the mental health of young people in light of crises like climate change and other issues. As an alternative to despair, he endorsed promoting “self-efficacy,” sharing positive examples of action and advocating for change through storytelling. “The storytelling is critical here,” he said. “We need to present the data clearly, but I want them to be picturing a child.”

Earlier in the conversation, Dr. Clinton also encouraged adults to build agency in youth, saying, “It is so hugely important, of course, that we teach kids about the science of the world around us. That’s what helps fuel their curiosity and their creativity, and also to build them as citizens, because I think it is really important to help kids feel like they can still make a difference.”

Dr. Austin stressed that as we share stories and solutions, we must be “learning from, listening to and being guided by those most impacted” and “embracing Black and brown people as valuable and necessary to idea generation, implementation and evaluation of solutions is really critical.”

👉Aligning Early Years and Climate Change Strategies Can Drive Action on Both Fronts

5. Children model for us how we can approach our physical world: with wonder. Dr. Li reminded participants that young children are fascinated by the environment, and we can learn a lot from them about their relationship to the environment as one of wonder versus exploitation. He urged us to widen our definition of health to include relational health with the planet.

Dr. Li encouraged all to embrace “that sense of wonder that young children have about the world” and that “when you wonder about something—a tree, an ant, a person—you care about that thing that you’re wondering about. And, if you care about that thing, then you take action for it, and I think that’s the kind of relational solution in addition to the technical solutions that we need as we look ahead.”

Dr. Clinton reminded viewers of the critical role parents and adults play in giving kids access to that wonder in the first place: “I was thinking about how lucky I was, but also am, that I spent a lot of time in national parks as a kid and in state parks in Arkansas… and how grateful I am that my parents understood that I needed that sense of wonder. And so I’m going to call them tonight and say thank you.”

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.

Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

Join us