Children's Policy for the Uninhabitable Earth

As we build child-focused systems, we must not assume that the environment will remain static or will fail to negatively impact human health. All signs point to a warmer future yielding an increasingly uninhabitable earth and new traumas for our children. 
Photo by  Matt Artz  on  Unsplash

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

by Joe Waters

Climate change is a pressing global threat and a unique menace to the well-being of our children and their children’s children. Those who work in systems that support children and families must strive to build systems that accommodate the negative climate change impacts on children and other vulnerable people. 

Any serious attempts to make our systems “trauma-smart” or “trauma-informed” must include ways to buffer and heal the traumas from extreme weather events that will come more rapidly as heat waves, hurricanes, fires, droughts, and floods increase. 

The science and impact of climate change is well-documented. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather, poor air quality, and rising temperatures. For example, in a study cited in David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, soldiers returning from war are estimated to suffer PTSD at a rate between 11 and 31%. Thirty-two weeks after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, more than half of children surveyed had moderate PTSD. Half. In the storm’s high-impact areas, 70% of children scored in the moderate to severe range twenty-one months after the storm. In another study focused on the mental health impacts of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, “children had a 27% chance of having been seriously injured, a 31% chance of having lost a family member, and a 63% chance of their home having been damaged or destroyed.” Any serious attempts to make our systems “trauma-smart” or “trauma-informed” must include ways to buffer and heal the traumas from extreme weather events that will come more rapidly as heat waves, hurricanes, fires, droughts, and floods increase. 

Addressing this need at the levels of public policy, government and social systems, and health care is a matter of intergenerational equity and justice. We, living in the present generation, have a moral obligation – a duty of justice – to put in place policies and systems that will be resilient and nimble enough to respond to the inevitable new childhood traumas resulting from climate catastrophe and ecological meltdown. While the worst may be averted by bold action of leaders from around the world to slow planetary warming, those who work on behalf of children must prudentially begin building an infrastructure and systems that assume the goals of the Paris Climate Accords and other international agreements will not be met or will not do enough to slow climate change.  

A truly comprehensive children’s policy would address the impacts of climate change and establish cross-agency and inter-governmental infrastructure to confront what is coming. The outline must be worked out soon, but the first step is to collect data that will help us better understand what is already happening to children as a specific result of climate change as well as what is likely to happen in the future. Given the particular damage that trauma inflicts on developing brains, any government data collection efforts in agencies focused on climate change impacts should collect data specifically on children in the periods of life when they are most susceptible to trauma. We need to know, for example, how many children under the age of five were impacted by last year’s fires in California, what sort of traumas they experienced, and what systems are providing services focused on healing the impacts of fire-related trauma. Better data specifically focused on understanding climate change’s impacts on young children is a necessary first step to building the child-focused health systems of the future.

This comprehensive effort will require child health researchers, policy makers, and advocates to engage in new collaborative efforts with agencies responsible for understanding climate change and setting climate-related policy (e.g. NOAA, NASA, NIH, etc.) to ensure that the particular needs of children and the impacts of childhood trauma resulting from climate change are prioritized. The most recent National Climate Assessment included a specific section on climate change impacts on indigenous people. A similar focus on children should be included in broad-based assessments in the future. 

As we build child-focused systems, we must not assume that the environment will remain static or will fail to negatively impact human health. All signs point to a warmer future yielding an increasingly uninhabitable earth and new traumas for our children.