While climate change is all around us, and the projections are uniformly grim, there have never been so many local, national and global opportunities to build a sustainable future. Flourishing Children, Healthy Communities and a Stronger Nation: The U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan gathers the results of a year-long exploration of the implications of climate change for young children.
The work began as a series of listening sessions that generated the ideas and perspectives in the Action Plan. “As heartbreaking as those stories were, it’s also inspiring to hear the creative solutions and practical ideas that emerged,” said Elizabeth Bechard, senior policy analyst at Moms Clean Air Force, during a virtual launch hosted by Capita’s Ankita Chachra.
Are you searching for inspiration? Here are seven encouraging highlights from the Action Plan:
1.The pandemic showed us how resourceful we can be. On the November 7 Hunt Institute webinar marking the Action Plan’s release, Diana Rauner—president of Start Early, and co-chair of the Early Years Climate Action Task Force—admitted that the planet is stressed and the solutions are underfunded but reminded participants that throughout history, partnerships arise during crises.
For example, the Action Plan describes how, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana-based nonprofit Agenda for Children launched the Rebuild Child Care Collaborative, which pooled private funding for child care centers. In 2021, after Hurricane Ida, the Agenda and the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children jointly distributed over $720,000 to 382 child care centers and family child care providers.
The global Covid pandemic offered plentiful examples of communities banding together; in Louisiana, Agenda for Children facilitated case management and legal advice to help child care centers secure Paycheck Protection Program loans.
2.The child care workforce is finding its voice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just over 1 million people work in child care in America (far more, if you count all the unpaid labor), and this workforce is dedicated to protecting our nation’s children. At a luncheon discussion exploring the Action Plan held by Capita and the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., Melissa Rooker of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund described child care workers as first responders, and the Action Plan spotlights North Bay Children’s Center, a California child care network with 13 locations that tracked the movements of children and families in the aftermath of the 2017 wildfires, linking them to emergency food and other resources.
“During the climate-related disasters that we’ve experienced over the past several years,” said North Bay’s Susan Gilmore, “The child care industry needs to be seen as essential, and like school districts, child care representatives should be included in the organizational structure of each county’s emergency operations center.”
During the Hunt Institute webinar, Erica Phillips, executive director of the National Association for Family Child Care, said, “While our sector is incredibly diverse, we are here to be allies in the climate planning work.”
3.The business community is engaged. The climate crisis that the experts have long predicted? It’s here. During the virtual launch, Angie Garling of the Low Income Investment Fund recalled a 106° F day in California’s Coachella Valley when the children were kept inside for their own safety.
As Antwanye Ford—president & CEO at Enlightened, Inc., and co-chair of the Early Years Climate Action Task Force—quipped at the Capita-Aspen luncheon, “Long-term becomes now really fast.”
The Action Plan singles out the Greater Seattle Child Care Business Coalition for recognizing the urgency; it supports child care providers by creating opportunities for them to learn about topics like employment law grants management. The coalition seeks greater investments from government and business and has amplified warnings about the impact of extreme heat.
Across the nation, the Inflation Reduction Act is incentivizing green energy solutions, and some observers predict the private sector will undertake even more substantial climate investments of its own accord.
The Action Plan recommends the creation of climate-aware policies and programs for employees with young children, fostering partnerships between businesses and early years facilities to fund essential upgrades, as well as partnering with local communities to build climate-resilient green space and community infrastructure.
4.Government is taking action. While the climate dimensions of the Inflation Reduction Act have received more attention, it is far from the only effort worth noting. In a conversation with Capita’s Joe Waters, Rep. Jennifer McClellan of Virginia, outlined the benefits of the bipartisan Child Care Assistance for Maternal Health Act, which would increase short-term child care access during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period. (Climate change adversely impacts pregnancy health directly and indirectly.)
Politics also follows public opinion, and sentiment toward climate action is increasing: Three out of four Americans feel they have a “moral obligation” to make the world a better place by addressing climate change not only for their own children and grandchildren but for all children to come. Many state and local governments are recognizing that steps to protect the youngest residents from climate catastrophe are necessary and possible.
At the state level, Action Plan recommendations include the creation of climate leadership roles and breaking down silos through collaborative structures. For example, California’s Child Care and Development Infrastructure Grant Program prioritizes the installation of energy-efficient electric appliances and retrofitting for disaster mitigation. At the local level, the Action Plan cites the work of Climate Mayors and recommends “integrating the perspectives of young children, their families and those who support them.”
During the Hunt Institute webinar, Dr. Rauner demonstrated a line of questioning for conversations with local officials: “What if we looked at our development from the perspective of a smaller person?”
5.Philanthropy is having an impact. U.S. foundations grant more than $105 billion annually, and a recent survey of 188 foundation executives found that more than 60% are funding efforts to address climate change. (Still others are focused on equity, and during the Hunt Institute webinar, Elliot Haspel, senior fellow at Capita—and Early Learning Nation columnist—memorably referred to climate change as an inequity multiplier.)
As impressive as these figures are, there is clearly room to expand these investments and to target them toward efforts that benefit young children and families. The Action Plan’s recommendations for the philanthropic sector include funding work that connects early years and climate change; developing a regular national scorecard on the state of young children and climate change; and supporting communities in efforts that promote healthy development for young children in a changing climate.
6.Children are vulnerable, but they’re also resilient. The word resilience can be a double-edged sword, both complementing people from disinvested communities for their innate strengths and expecting them to bounce back from every hardship and disaster. The Action Plan uses the word 88 times over its 99 pages, referring to climate resilience as well as the children whose future depends on it (see sidebar).
At the Capita-Aspen luncheon, Robert Mayer, KABOOM’s associate director for Public Policy and Advocacy, made the comment that the most subsequent speakers quoted: “Children will be as adaptive as society allows them to be.”
7.The Action Plan is just the start. As Capita and its partner organizations communicate the Plan’s findings and recommendations, the hope is that the dialogue will proliferate wherever decision makers, advocates and activists gather to envision the future—taking inspiration from those with lived experience. “People from disadvantaged communities are already showing the way,” said Haspel at the Capita-Aspen luncheon.
There’s also a lot to learn about adaptation from indigenous communities. During the virtual launch, Alicia Mousseau, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, noted, “Tribal communities have always adapted to things that we’ve never experienced before in our history.”
Two Types of Resilience
“Climate resilience is the capability to anticipate, prepare for, respond to and recover from significant multi-hazard climate threats with minimum damage to social well-being, the economy and the environment.”
“Resilience (distinct from climate resilience) refers to the ability to overcome serious hardship. Children’s resilience is the result of a combination of protective factors. Neither individual characteristics nor social environments alone are likely to ensure positive outcomes for children who experience prolonged periods of toxic stress. Children build resilience via an interaction between biology and the environments in which they live.”