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Climate Change and Children’s Health

February 23, 2024

Editor’s Note: Jenny is the mother of two children with special healthcare needs and a Patient & Family Advisor at her local children’s hospital. In addition to her lived experience, Jenny calls upon her professional experience as a social worker to help her write blogs from her home in Wisconsin.– Cara L. Coleman, JD, MPH, Associate Editor, Pediatrics

Family Connections with Pediatrics

A few weeks ago, my children and I checked out some books from the library about climate change. We read a couple at dinner that night and by bedtime they had questions.

Mama, is the Earth sick?

Can the Earth die like Grandma and Grandpa died?

But wait, if the Earth dies, what will happen . . . to us?

Ouch. That last one hurt the most. Climate change is no longer just something grown-ups think about. Children are paying attention too and they are worried. But they are also curious, and creative, and ready to join in the fight to create a healthy future for all children.

This month’s Pediatrics includes two important articles on the topic of climate change and children’s health—a technical report and a policy statement. The technical report describes the science behind climate change and how this impacts childhood health (10.1542/peds.2023-065505). The policy statement provides suggestions for doctors and governments to address the harm caused by climate change and to make improvements (10.1542/peds.2023-065504).

What is climate change?

Gases in the Earth’s atmosphere let sunlight through, but trap the sun’s heat. These “greenhouse gases” act as a blanket that absorbs radiation from the Earth’s surface. This heats up the Earth and allows us to have enough warmth to sustain life here. However, having too many greenhouse gases is causing the Earth to warm too much, leading to all sorts of troubling changes to our climate. These include:

  • Increase in global temperature
  • Decrease in air quality
  • Rising sea levels
  • More acid in the oceans
  • More extreme weather

How does climate change impact children’s physical health?

Although people of all ages are impacted by climate change, children are at much higher risk due to their developing bodies, dependence on caregivers, and greater impact of toxins found in the air, food, and water. Changes in the climate impact children’s physical health in a number of ways:

  • Higher temperatures can lead to heat-related illness and dehydration
  • Poor air quality can lead to an increase in allergies and asthma
  • Changes to food sources can lead to poor nutrition and hunger
  • More insects surviving can lead to more bacterial infections and viruses
  • Extreme weather events can lead to injuries and drownings

How does climate change impact children’s mental health?

In addition to physical health, climate change also impacts children’s mental health. Many children learn about climate change in school or through the media but feel like they do not have any power to make the problem better. This lack of control, worry, and despair can lead to the following:

  • Stress
  • Trauma
  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Ecoanxiety—Includes panic attacks, trouble sleeping, and obsessive thinking
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts

What can you do with this article?

One of the hardest things about climate change is that our children often feel helpless, and that makes us as parents feel helpless too. The best thing we can do is give our children a sense of power to create change. We can work together to educate, communicate, advocate, and escalate our concerns. To start:

  1. Read the full version of this technical report to learn all you can about climate change. Get ready to have hard conversations with your kids and answer their questions to the best of your ability.
  2. Share these articles with other families. Share them with your child’s doctor, their teachers, and community leaders. Overcoming the challenges of climate change does not happen in silos.
  3. Ask if your doctor’s office can include climate change counseling in their clinical practice. This means assessing for risks to both physical and mental health due to climate change.
  4. Encourage your child’s doctor to join local, state, and national campaigns for climate justice. Specific ideas and resources for health care providers can be found in the policy statement.
  5. Support your child to write letters to their government leaders to ask for better policies and earth-friendly sources of energy, such as wind, solar, hydropower, and nuclear.
  6. Find local climate change activities in your area and get involved. These could be awareness events, learning opportunities, marches, neighborhood clean-ups, recycling days, and so on.

All children deserve a safe and healthy future, and that cannot happen without a safe and healthy environment. We all have a role to play in helping to heal the planet.


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