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Chelsea Clinton, Experts Discuss Impact of Climate Change on Childhood Development

Former First Daughter Chelsea V. Clinton moderated a discussion on the effects of climate change on childhood development at a Harvard Graduate School of Education forum Wednesday.
Former First Daughter Chelsea V. Clinton moderated a discussion on the effects of climate change on childhood development at a Harvard Graduate School of Education forum Wednesday. By Emily L. Ding
By Katie B. Tian, Crimson Staff Writer

A panel of four early childhood health experts discussed the effect of climate change on childhood development at a Harvard Graduate School of Education forum featuring former First Daughter Chelsea V. Clinton on Wednesday.

The event, hosted by HGSE’s Askwith Education Forum, was titled “A Healthy Childhood in a Changing Climate” and sought to outline viable solutions to mitigate the impact of climate change on children’s health and development. Clinton, the vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, moderated the discussion.

HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long opened the forum by highlighting the urgency of responding to a changing climate, noting that wildfires, extreme heat, air pollution, and flooding are imminent risks to the social and academic development of children.

“We are living in a changing climate,” Long said. “This is not some future challenge. It is here now.”

Clinton said adults ought to take accountability for climate change rather than shifting responsibility onto the next generation.

“They should be going to school, and playing outside in the dirt, and having a sense of wonder,” she said, referring to youth climate activists. “We should hold ourselves accountable that we have failed to do that for them.”

Lindsey C. Burghardt, chief science officer at Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, said climate change can be especially detrimental for children with conditions such as asthma or allergies.

Drawing on her experience as a pediatrician and mother, Burghardt recounted a conversation with her son, who had trouble focusing at school because of the heat in his classroom.

“I sort of had this moment of really coming to realize how climate change and how increasing temperatures were fundamentally altering the environment that was surrounding him and shaping his development,” she said.

Gaurab Basu, director of education and policy at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, said human health should be a priority and urged for procedures that would allow people to take care of one another.

“To care for people’s health is to honor people’s humanity,” he said.

Basu pointed to improvements in infrastructure — such as heat pumps and green playgrounds — as potential solutions to climate distress in schools, citing the effects extreme heat can have on children’s mental health, behavioral regulation, sleep patterns, and reproductive health.

In addition to negative physiological effects, climate change also produces behavioral concerns for students, according to Leah Austin, the president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute.

Austin said extreme heat due to poorly ventilated classrooms can increase irritation or aggression in students, which can result in suspension, expulsion, and overall setbacks in children’s academic experiences.

“Discrepancies and inequities show up for Black children in ways that we don’t always connect the dots on,” Austin said.

Junlei Li, a Senior Lecturer at HGSE, said addressing climate change should be informed by a childlike “sense of wonder” about the world.

“Our care, our actions, can be inspired not just by the sense of risk and impending threat, but the sense of wonder that children have about the world around them,” Li said.

Basu called the impact of climate change “disorienting,” but noted that humanity is well equipped to combat its effects.

“We have everything we need to tackle this head on,” Basu said. “We waited way too long. We should have had this conversation decades ago.”

Li advocated for policymakers to provide more support for families, educators, and care providers.

“We cannot make a lasting impact on children by skipping over the adults in the middle,” Li said.

Clinton closed with a call to action.

“Please take your kids to vote with you, so they understand the connection between what they care about — whether it’s climate, or education, or health,” she said. “And who you pull the lever for.”

—Staff writer Katie B. Tian can be reached at katie.tian@thecrimson.com.

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