By: Rebecca Philipsborn, MD, MPA, FAAP
Climate change can be scary and overwhelming for children and families. It causes harm from storms,
wildfires, emerging illnesses, and
heat and air pollution. Many of these harms build upon one another to worsen child health.
If the problem feels overwhelming, you aren't alone. Recently, 10,000 people age 16 years to 25 years old from 10 countries were
surveyed about climate change and government responses to climate change. Over half said they felt sad,
anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty; 83% agreed that people have failed to take care of the planet.
Climate change is real
The earth's temperature is rising. Glaciers are shrinking. The sea level is rising. Weather has become more extreme. These big changes are the result of human activities, especially our burning of fossil fuel for energy and transportation. We now know what we need to do so children can have a healthier future.
The good news is that some actions needed to reduce climate change will improve children's health. It will take big changes to shift toward clean energy and away from polluting energy sources and activities. But even small
choices that parents and kids make every day can have a big impact—and are better for our health! Here's how:
Some actions or activities that are good for us also are good for the environment.
These choices, in turn, keep the planet clean, healthy and green for our children and future generations.
For example, choosing to spend time in nature and green spaces is good for a child's physical and mental health. And adding more green space with trees for shade reduces extreme heat in cities.
What are greenhouse gases?Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and water vapor are greenhouse gases. These gases are a natural part of the earth's atmosphere and trap heat to keep our planet warm. But human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels like gasoline for energy, have released more greenhouse gases. A thick blanket of greenhouse gases has formed. It has caused the earth's temperature to steadily rise over the past century.
Energy choices for climate & health
In the United States, two sources—electricity and transportation—cause the most greenhouse gas emissions. The
greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels for electricity and transportation collect in the earth's atmosphere. The use of fossil fuels for energy also causes pollution on the ground and in our neighborhoods where children breathe.
Shifting to renewable energy, like solar and wind power, improves air quality. This change will help children breathe cleaner and less polluted air and improve children's health now and in the future.
Cleaner air can improve birth outcomes and children's cardiovascular, respiratory and neurologic health.
Biking, walking and public transportation also help keep the air clean and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Choosing active and alternative transportation will connect people within their communities and boost their physical fitness.
Food choices for climate & health
Some types of food, like red meat, contribute more to climate change and are less healthy for children.
Food waste (like in landfills) also releases a potent greenhouse gas called methane into the air that worsens climate change.
Serve a variety of nutritious foods:
Incorporate local, fresh, and
Avoid processed foods, processed sugars and processed meats
To reduce food waste, plan meals, cut back on the amount of food you buy and eat leftovers or foods that will spoil first so that you do not have to throw them away.
Try more health-boosting actions that help the climate:
backyard compost or participate in your community's compost program where available
Choose active (walking and biking) and public transportation when possible and safe
Support "safe routes to school" programs
Speak up about the benefits of electric or alternative-fuel school buses and other changes for cleaner air in your community
Weatherize your home to save on energy use and save money
Consider rooftop solar panels or supporting clean energy through your utility company
Advocate for green building design for community projects, schools, and new construction
outdoor play and programs that support access to nature for children
Support your community's local tree ordinance and environmental planning
Consider an electric vehicle or electric bicycle
Support your child if they want to get involved in a local youth organization
Every purchase and choice has an impact on the environment. When possible, choose the most environmentally friendly option—it makes a difference for your child and for others. Many of these health-promoting actions are not affordable or available for all children and families. Children in minority and low-wealth communities are least likely to have access to these resources. They also are more exposed to climate changes that worsen their health.
Pediatricians and parents share the same goal—to protect children's health today, and to ensure that kids can grow into healthy, thriving adulthood. That's why pediatricians care about climate change and children's health, and advocate for climate solutions. If you are concerned about health effects of climate change, ask your pediatrician. All of us can work with community leaders to make sure that the voices and needs of all children are considered in actions to address climate change and that addressing climate change is considered a priority for child health.
Rebecca Philipsborn, MD, MPA, FAAP, is a pediatrician at Emory University and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and serves on the Southeast Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU). She is a member of the executive committee for AAP Council on Environmental Health and Climate Change and assistant editor of the 5th edition of Pediatric Environmental Health, with Drs. Ruth Etzel and Sophie Balk.
This document was supported in part through cooperative agreement OT18-1802 awarded to the American Academy of Pediatrics and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.