Credit: California National Guard / Flickr
Burned-out cars and chimney stacks cover the landscape in Santa Rosa on Oct. 14, 2017, after the wildfires that spread across Sonoma County.

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Children born today will bear the brunt of the burden of climate change despite having the least responsibility for causing it. Growing calls to position climate change as a child’s rights crisis stem from clear evidence of the negative impacts high temperatures, poor air quality, and stress associated with living through natural disasters have on the most important developmental years of a person’s life.

Centering child health and well-being in climate policy — specifically through the lens of space, facilities, and the built environment — is a critical piece of building resilient communities and ensuring all children can live healthy and fulfilling lives.

As parents and facilities experts, we urge policymakers, financial institutions, funders and communities to prioritize our youngest children as we address the climate emergency. A new paper published jointly by our organizations, the Low Income Investment Fund and the UC Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools, identifies a set of core policy recommendations to ensure children and the spaces they live and play in are at the forefront of the battle for climate resilience and preparedness.

  1. Ensure all existing and planned early care and education facilities are renovated or built with resilient, high-quality, sustainable materials.
    Settings where young children spend their time — notably their homes and child care settings — need to both protect them from lifelong health complications and be designed to withstand harsh weather events likely to grow in frequency and severity in future decades. Although there is currently no dedicated federal funding stream for modernizing or constructing child care facilities, states and cities have increasingly moved to respond to the sector’s infrastructure needs with American Rescue Plan Act and Inflation Reduction Act dollars. In California, the Child Care and Development Infrastructure Grant Program prioritizes projects that use climate resilient materials and retrofit their facilities for disaster mitigation, and $100 million in new Urban Forestry Act funds will set aside nearly $30 million for outdoor improvements and greening initiatives at child care facilities to cool play spaces and mitigate fire damage and extreme heat.
  2. Invest in small businesses and early care and education providers who need assistance to adopt climate mitigation strategies.
    Child care programs in the U.S. face systemic inequities and tend to run on thin margins, making expensive facilities projects focused on mitigating climate impacts or disaster recovery an afterthought. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, a survey of child care centers in Houston found that nearly 40% lacked flood insurance altogether, prompting 52 providers with capacity to serve more than 5,000 children to permanently close. Local governments and financial institutions can help preserve child care slots with relatively small grants or forgivable loans to both prepare their facilities in advance of a climate emergency and to address any issues resulting from a disaster.
  3. Include early care and education facilities in local planning processes to reduce household carbon emissions and improve quality of life for parents and children.
    Well-planned urban spaces can aid efforts to reduce carbon footprints and increase the supply of high-quality early care and education facilities and other community amenities. Areas of low-density sprawl tend to increase reliance on cars and private vehicles, often leading to higher household carbon emissions than those in areas of greater density. Local planning efforts should prioritize young children and families by co-locating affordable housing, business and other community amenities with early care and education facilities.
  4. Make families a priority in community and economic development strategies by emphasizing reliable child care and climate resilience.
    Working families with young children are especially vulnerable to economic disruptions, and disaster- or heat-related child care program closures can force early-career parents to miss work or forgo full employment. After the Tubbs fire of 2017 in Santa Rosa, California, many homeowners and renters were underinsured and displaced from their homes after they were unable to cover the required costs of repairs. Rent prices increased by nearly 44%, and young families in particular had to make difficult decisions about living and care arrangements. Support for families, parents and caregivers is crucial for ensuring young families have the means to provide quality, appropriate and resilient living and child care environments for their children.
  5. Design public programs so that communities with the largest child care gaps and greatest climate risks receive the most support.
    As states and localities consider ways to support physical environments where young children are served, they should focus explicitly on climate risks present in varying communities. New data from the First Street Foundation provides relative climate risk levels for 150 million residential and commercial properties in the United States to issues like extreme heat days, wildfire, and flooding. Governments should incorporate these data into grant programs to prioritize the types of building practices most important by geography.
  6. Analyze the ways racial, geographic and socioeconomic disparities intersect with climate policy.
    Combined with prioritizing resources for providers in areas of most risk, resources should also be prioritized for traditionally disadvantaged communities and providers. Oftentimes, these characteristics overlap: Communities with the most disadvantage are also facing the most intense climate risks. Metrics and analytic tools are needed to understand which communities have the most severe climate and child care needs to fully assess child and family well-being.

Young children have their whole lives ahead of them — any climate and environmental degradation at an early age can result in a lifetime of lost opportunity. As climate change becomes more visceral in our daily lives, now is the time to prioritize young children as we plan for the future of public infrastructure and the environment.

•••

Angie Garling is vice president of early care and education at the Low Income Investment Fund. Jeff Vincent, Ph.D., is a director at the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley. Isabelle Donohoe is a graduate student in the department of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. Joe Fretwell is a program officer for early care and education at the Low Income Investment Fund.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Jim 1 month ago1 month ago

    “Children born today will bear the brunt of the burden of climate change despite having the least responsibility for causing it.”

    In an startling coincidence no child has ever created the world they were born into. It’s a fact, you can look it up. In another interesting fact all children were born on days the sun rose in the east.