Education

Climate Change and Early Childhood are More Connected Than You Think.

The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference ( COP27), an international climate conference that took place in Egypt this year, is over. World leaders have many items to address as they return to their home countries. Many people don’t consider young children as the most vulnerable to climate changes.

This is a nexus – kids and climate – where research is becoming more robust but public awareness and understanding are far behind.

Elliot Haspel wants to make a difference and it will happen soon. Haspel is a prominent voice in early childhood education. He is the author of ” Crrawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis” and “How to Fix It“. As a senior fellow at Capita a nonpartisan think tank, Haspel will oversee the growth and development of the “Childhood Climate Fund,” a global philanthropic fund that focuses on the intersection between climate change and early childhood.

We were curious to know why climate change is so important for someone who constantly raises alarms on the urgent issues facing early childhood education. This includes system-wide dysfunction, poor working conditions, and uncompetitive wages. Why now?

We asked Haspel about his interest in the intersection and why the fight for early childhood improvement is so closely linked to the fight against climate change.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed to improve clarity.

EdSurge: You are shifting your focus to the intersection of climate change and early childhood. Could you please explain the connection between these two?

Elliot Haspel Climate Change is a huge threat to early childhood development. Therefore, I believe that all efforts to improve the well-being of children and families will be limited if we don’t address climate change.

However, I believe that efforts to combat climate change and mitigate it are lacking a strong foundation in families and children. This is what I believe the intersection is. Young children are particularly at risk because they are prenatally to eighteen years old and therefore uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Their biology is a major reason. Young children’s brains and bodies are more vulnerable to things like air pollution and wildfire smoke, as well as from climate-enhanced natural disasters. They also have to deal with disruptions in their caregiving relationships that are caused climate-enhanced storms.

Air pollution is a good example. Because they breathe in and out much faster, young children are more likely to inhale particulate matter from pollution than adults or older people. Because they are smaller, their height means that they are closer to ground pollution. They inhale more particulate matter than adults. It can also impact their brain development and physical development. Some studies have shown a link between early childhood exposure to air pollution and later-life mental illness risk. These are serious dangers that young children face, and they have largely not been addressed.

What about the experience being a child beyond the neurological and physical effects?

The truth is that there are more days in the U.S. than you can reasonably spend outside. Children are less likely to be outdoors playing in the natural world on days when they can’t go outside, than ever before. This is due to a number of factors, including the historic highs of extreme precipitation, extreme storms, and heat waves. Heat waves are becoming longer. Heat waves are becoming more intense. All of this has a negative impact on childhood.

It reinforces the cycle of children not being able to go outside often enough for them to stay inside, and then they are often on screens. They are not forming the same relationship with nature.

The Pacific Northwest ” Heat Dom” last summer is a memorable example. It was a time when the public pools were closed because it was unsafe for people to walk on the ground. It’s been hot since the beginning. We should be aware of that. It is more intense and longer than ever, which is affecting children’s relationships with nature. This is in an age where author Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder”. We already have concerns about children being too dependent on technology, especially screens, and too much time spent indoors. Climate change is changing how children experience nature.

You also wrote that many children are part of families that could be affected by climate change. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

There are many other disasters than the hurricanes and extreme wildfires such as those in California and Colorado. And there is flooding. Extreme precipitation is leading to massive flooding in cities like Detroit, which experienced it a few years back. Your entire life can be turned upside-down if your apartment or house floods, or if it burns down.

The American Psychological Association is clear that children and young people experience psychological effects from natural disasters much worse than adults. It can be very disruptive for the whole family, and often causes instability for the parents which in turn impacts the children. It’s going to impact children more and more as we continue to see American communities devastated by everything, from the most dramatic natural disasters to the mundane, massive rainstorms. This conversation will take place on Nov. 17, just before Buffalo, New York is set to receive several feet of snow. The “global weirding,” Katharine Hayhoe said, is definitely upon us, and it really does impact children.

For the COP27 climate conference, some of the world’s most powerful political leaders were in Egypt. Do they think and talk about the effects of climate change on young children?

They are not enough, if any. UNICEF has led a coalition of child rights and advocacy groups who attended COP. They really want to make it prominent. This was the first time that COP had a complete children’s pavilion. A 13-year old boy was able to present for the first time on the COP floor.

There are many outside efforts to help children feel more at home, but they are not an integral part of the discussion. COP is not open to young children, whether they are a toddler or a preschooler. They are, in many ways, the most vulnerable and disenfranchised population or group of humans. It is important to place young children and their families at the forefront of the climate conversation.

What solutions are possible? How likely is it that new solutions will be found?

First, I want to say that many of the solutions exist in the most affected communities. They’re dealing with it. A Louisiana doula spoke about the difficulties that midwives and doulas have to deal with hurricanes. She explained how they can help a woman who is in labor during a hurricane. Many of the necessary adaptations and solutions are already being implemented in many frontline communities, many which are often communities of color.

However, there are two buckets. One is to think about the resilience of our child care systems to the impacts of climate change.

Did you know that we have already discussed air pollution? Air pollution can be addressed by ensuring that all child care programs and pediatric health providers have a quality air filtration system. Philanthropy may have a role in funding that research and finding the best cost-effective intervention. We know how tight-knit child care programs are so we don’t have to ask them to add another expense. How can we increase air filtration cost-effectively? How can we help states and municipalities understand that funding for these programs should include air filtration? Is air filtration a factor in licensing decisions or requirements for child care programs? This is not going to happen by itself, but I believe philanthropy can play a part.

Capita’s fund that we are incubating will finance a pilot project in Richmond, Virginia on air quality. Yale’s Child Study Center is also working on this issue. We’re making sure we upgrade HVAC systems, and especially air conditioning systems, in areas that we know are becoming hotter. There are many ways to build resilience into systems.

Another example is that we know that heat island effects can be reduced by greening schools and playgrounds. This involves removing asphalt from the area, adding shade structures and painting cooling materials to roofs and roads. These solutions are out there. It is a matter of how we organize them to ensure that all children can thrive in this era of climate change.

That’s just one component. The question of parent education I believe is an important one. Parents and child care providers don’t understand the impact that climate change has on children, so I think they are not fully aware of it. When we talk about climate change and children, it is often in an abstract future of “Well, we must help the planet for next generation,” but the current generation is being hurt. Climate change in the United States is causing harm to children every day. It’s not limited to the United States. It’s not a doom-and-gloom story, but I believe it is. We can make our communities more healthy, safer and stronger. This will help to reduce climate change. There’s a positive story, but we must also include parents. It all starts with education.

Early childhood educators and advocates may doubt that this is the right issue to focus on in the field. However, there are so many other issues that need to be addressed.

There are two ways that focusing on climate can be additive. It is helping us achieve our goals as a sector or early childhood field. It supports school readiness. It’s important to have child care programs that don’t flood out, burn down or lose their AC so that fewer children are exposed to climate trauma caused by displacement or air pollution. This directly supports our goal of ensuring that every child has the best possible early childhood experience. It also aligns the early childhood field more closely with climate science. The climate movement is more financially powerful and politically well-funded than early childhood. The combination of the two–the fates of caring for the earth and the planet, and caring for children- a powerful reframe that could lead to a powerful alliance that could truly move forward.

This is my argument. The child care crisis is real. I often wax poetic about the need to have a fully public funded child care system. That fight is one that I continue to wage every day.

Alex Steffen, a climate writer, has a quote that I quote often. It is about climate change.
“It’s not an issue, it is an era.” It encompasses all other issues. It’s not as if child care and early education are just being added to climate. Climate is the context. We have to accept that. There is a way to deal with this reality and it will actually help the sector’s goals. If we don’t, I believe we’ll see many of our goals go unrealized.

 

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