In recent years, child development specialists have become concerned about the risks to young children posed by the impact of climate change on the natural and built environments into which children are born. This article describes current research on the relationship between climate and early development, and provides a link to a just-released report outlining steps communities can take to offset the negative impacts of climate change on the lives of young children.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency described the dramatic impact of environmental change on the communities in which young children live, including the following observations:
- Extreme heat poses serious health risks. Young children have more body surface area relative to their mass than adults, increasing their risk of dehydration on hot days.
- Climate change decreases the quality of the air we breathe. Children are particularly vulnerable to harm from poor air quality because their lungs are still developing, and they breathe in more air relative to their size. Pollutants can harm lung function and worsen childhood asthma. Inflammation from air pollution in early childhood has been linked to negative impacts on early cognitive development.
- Warmer temperatures fuel heavier downpours and increased flooding. Hazards from flooding include injury, drowning, and displacement from homes and communities, all of which cause stress or trauma, especially for young children. Floods can also overwhelm wastewater systems, increasing exposure to bacteria and parasites.
- Warmer, average temperatures increase the numbers and habitat range of disease-carrying insects, ticks, viruses, and bacteria. Because children’s immune systems are still developing, they are less prepared to resist vector-borne diseases.
- Longer warm seasons mean more severe seasonal allergies. Longer warm seasons cause pollen to remain in the air for longer periods, while higher average temperatures trap allergens and pollutants close to ground level, both of which worsen allergies and asthma. This is particularly hard on children, whose respiratory systems are not fully developed. The result will be more days of missed school, and more emergency department visits caused by respiratory illness.
The connection between environment and early childhood health is further detailed in Place Matters: The Environment We Create Shapes the Foundation of Healthy Development, a 2023 report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. The report explains that biological systems, including the brain, metabolism, immune, and respiratory systems are each most sensitive to environmental influences at specific ages.
Resource: Offsetting the Impact of Climate Change
Another important report is the U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan titled Flourishing Children, Healthy Communities, and a Stronger Nation, which was released in October. The action plan provides recommendations to government, business, philanthropy and researchers, outlining actions they can take, individually and together, to advance climate-related solutions for children and families, child- and family-facing programs, early childhood care providers, and communities.