Children are the future: How climate change impacts the next generation
Did you know that children are more likely to experience negative health impacts from climate change than adults? According to Kari Nadeau at Stanford University’s Center for Allergy & Asthma Research, kids not only experience worse health outcomes than adults, but often experience negative impacts on their mental health as well.
This podcast is about the impacts of climate change on children, and how children are being introduced to climate change in schools. Action starts with awareness, and so it is crucial to talk about climate change with the younger generation in a way that empowers and enables them.
I interviewed a 12-year-old in elementary school to learn about her experience with climate change, the ways it impacts her personal life, and the role that climate change plays in regards to her education. This gave me deep insights into how we can better include children in the fight against climate change.
Full transcript below. The interviewee’s initials are pseudonymous.
SR: Hello and welcome to this week’s podcast on Planet Forward. I’m your host, Sam Rajesh. And today we’re gonna be talking all about children, climate and change. Climate change undoubtably has a massive impact on human life and no one is exempt. This episode is dedicated to the impact of climate change on children. Our children are the future. They are the ones to bear both the brunt and the benefits of our actions today. But just as much as it will impact their future, climate change has devastating impacts on their lives right now. In this episode, we explore how children are impacted by the effects of climate change, how they learn about and conceptualize it, and how we can engage them in eradicating its reach.
According to Kari Nadeau of Stanford’s Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, children are more likely than adults to suffer health problems due to environmental impacts. Their bodies metabolize toxins, and regulate body temperature differently than adults. They also need more oxygen per pound of body weight. As a result, they experience complications in their heart, lungs, and immune system over extended periods of exposure to pollutants. Scientists tell us that industrialization-related pollution has increased so much in the last decade, that every single child in this world is expected to suffer from at least one climate change related event in the next 10 years.
Even these impacts are not just physical reasons epidemiological research indicates that air pollution is a risk factor for mental health conditions in children and teens. Exposure to traffic related air pollution, for example, can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression across our lifespan. On the other hand, children that become displaced by natural disasters, such as wildfires and flooding are at greater risk for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and mood disorders, not only in their early life, but also far into their adult lives too.
There’s this concept called eco-anxiety, coined by the American Psychology Association. It refers to quote, “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future, and that of the next generation.” Just as children are exposed to climate change and air pollution as an early age. They need to be educated about how to combat these effects at an early age too. Public schools can benefit from environmental education as part of a holistic curriculum as opposed to a chapter in their science syllabus.
This way, we can integrate various different subjects and disciplines into teaching children about the environment, its impact, and how to create change on a micro and macro level. Here is a little clip from my discussion with a 12 year old student in elementary school. She wishes to remain anonymous, but has given us an exclusive insight into what it feels like to grapple with climate change as a kid in today’s world. How do you understand climate change? What does that mean to you?
JD: I know to me, based on what I’ve learned in school, it’s like how our actions affect our climate and how our actions affect the world and the global warming and stuff.
SR: Can you please tell me a little bit about how climate change and the environment has impacted your life on a personal level?
JD: For me… So when I was really young, I used to live in China. And there, there was a lot of pollution. And it was really bad. So that’s what… to the point that we had to move when I was six. So we had to move. And it really affected my breathing. Me and my mom, what we both had was really… I really struggled to breathe there. And it really affected our lungs and we could see it. So based on that for our health, we had to move. And later in life, maybe three years ago, I started developing some asthma attacks. I was really scared the first time and… To know that how it might have started, was pollution… Because one of my asthma triggers, (is) dust and pollution, and like they really affect me. So it can really start an asthma attack, which is really scary to experience for the first time, or anytime to be honest. But I’m really happy that it’s getting better. But so, we need to fix the environment.
SR: In your opinion, how do you think that your schools you talk about climate change in a more productive way that helps motivate you to take change towards improving our planet for everyone? Do you think that they’re doing a good job right now? Do you think that they could do certain things differently? What is your advice?
JD: I feel like right now in the school system, it’s like they’re talking about it, but they’re talking about it as if it’s a task. It’s not just, “Oh, complete this worksheet, and then you’re done.” I was learning about how we can make small changes into our lives. And when we’re washing our hands to turn off- turn off the sink or brushing my teeth and those stuff- those presentations stuck with me. But even the stuff I did last week on climate change, I really can’t remember it. So the way that they did it is that we had certain classes to truly focus on our health, first, our health. And when we were talking about our health, of course, the climate came in.
And we were talking about how we can save the climate. And we did a lot of fun activities, (learning about) the animals and how it affects them. And right now, I feel like we’re really dumbing it down and making it a less serious issue than what it actually is. And when kids grow out of this school system, they just have to find out then, where they haven’t learned anything on how to actually fix it, not just one person or how to spread the word. And, yeah, they should just do more activities and show actual real life, like actual real life scenarios from how it’s happening.
And (they should) do hands on activities to really make the knowledge stick. Because if you just put it in a set presentation, the kids aren’t going to be listening, they’re going to be talking with their friend. Get them to stand up, get them to actually go outside and see how it really is. And show them pictures from before and after. Because that’s what’s really interesting to the children.
SR: Thank you so much for your time and your insights. This was really, really helpful for me and for all our listeners to learn a little bit about what it’s like to be a young kid in today’s schooling system, learning about climate change and the environment. In trying to accomplish some of these changes, the United Nations Secretary General announced a second Youth Advisory Group on climate change in March of 2023.
This group will support the United Nations and accelerating global action towards climate change by leveraging the unique challenges, experiences, perspectives, and ideas of young people approaching tough conversations like climate change can be tricky to navigate for teachers and new parents. However, there are plenty of resources available to support us in this journey. One great example is a Natural Resources Defense Council, which has a step-by-step guide on how to talk with children of all ages, as young as zero to six, and much older, as for example from six to 12 on climate change, including basic facts, answers to tough questions, and tips for managing eco-anxiety.
In a nutshell, it’s about striking the fine balance between expressing urgency whilst assuring hope. That’s all for this episode. I hope that you learned a little bit more about climate change through the lens of children, how they understand, perceive, and work in their own way towards eradicating it. Climate change is such a diverse and personal topic and there are so many actors that are involved, so many voices that need to be heard, and so many needs that need to be taken into consideration. So as we work hard to make this world a better place, the generation that precedes us. Let’s not forget to keep them in mind as we do it right now.