What Climate Change Is Already Doing to Children’s Brains

6 minute read
Perera is a Professor of Public Health, Director of Translational Research, and Founding Director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health. She is the author of Children’s Health and the Peril of Climate Change

It’s true: the data on the spiraling planetary crisis, the cascading health effects, and widening inequality due to climate change are extremely daunting. In fact, they can cause us to look away, paralyzed by the enormity of the problem. But what if our refusal to change our ways has ripple effects to future generations? Will we pay attention, then?

During the last two decades, my own research and that of many other scientists has revealed the extraordinary vulnerability of children to climate change and air pollution, both largely due to fossil fuel burning. By studying pregnant women and their children, we have shown that climate change and air pollution are causing serious harm to children’s health and developing brains, even while they are in the womb. This is nothing short of a public health emergency and especially for children who, because of their skin color or family income, are hit the hardest. But policy, technological, and individual solutions exist, and there is much we can do—and should do.

The understanding that climate change and air pollution affect the developing brain has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. Research has now linked prenatal as well as postnatal air pollution exposure to reduced IQ and other cognitive problems, developmental disorders such as ADHD and autism, depression and anxiety, and even structural changes in the brains of children. Research has also shown how climate-related displacement results in disruption of education and mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression in children. These conditions often persist, affecting health and brain function in adulthood. They also add to the list of harms that have been more widely recognized as being related to climate change and air pollution: heat-related illness, drowning and physical trauma from severe storms and floods, premature birth and low birth weight, asthma, and other respiratory disease.

Read More: Extreme Heat Makes It Hard for Kids to Be Active. But Exercise Is Crucial In a Warming World

Importantly, the new understanding of the vulnerability of the fetal brain has dispelled several myths: The first was the long-held belief that the placenta served as a perfect barrier, protecting the fetus from exposure to harmful agents in the mother’s environment. The next was that the baby’s brain was effectively protected by a “blood-brain barrier” acting as a sentinel to prevent the passage of toxic agents into the fetal brain. We now know that toxic chemicals and stressors experienced by the pregnant mother can be transferred to the fetus and the developing brain.

There are many reasons why the young brain is so vulnerable. The rapid and complex developmental programming during the fetal period is especially prone to disruption by toxic air pollutants and climate-related stressors. Consider the fact that almost all of the 100 billion nerve cells in our adult brains were formed while we were in utero and much of the architecture of the brain was built at this time. Vulnerability continues through the early years as the brain continues to develop along complex pathways. Compounding the problem, children also lack the fully functioning biologic defense mechanisms that operate in adults, such as the complex enzyme systems that detoxify harmful pollutants and repair their damage to DNA.

Of growing concern is the possible cumulative—greater than additive—effect on mental health from concurrent exposure to environmental and climate “shocks” such as severe drought, flooding, water scarcity, and high levels of air pollution. An estimated 1 in 3 children in the world live in regions where at least four of these shocks overlap. We know that adverse experiences in childhood increase the risk of depression and anxiety disorders both in the short-term and in the adult years.

Even when children have not directly experienced a climate-related shock, stress due to the awareness of climate change and its effects— known as climate change anxiety—is increasing the risk of mental health problems in the young. Almost 60% of young people who participated in a recent global survey reported feeling extremely worried about climate change; almost half said that their daily lives were being negatively affected by these feelings.

Here is the challenge for government leaders and for all of us: To prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, the U.S. must meet its stated goals: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to reach net-zero by 2050. That might feel like very little time, but fortunately, the solutions are known and available right now. They include government policies to rapidly increase energy efficiency and expand renewable capacity (mainly solar and wind), ensure that nearly all vehicles sold by 2030 are electric, and speed the transition of buildings and industries to electrification—all this paired with various forms of energy storage, transmission expansion, and enhancement of the capacity of forests and soils to safely store carbon.

The solutions also include social programs to reduce poverty through housing assistance, economic support, and childcare, and to provide basic water and hygiene services, quality health care, and education to the most vulnerable children. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act are major steps toward those goals but more action—and greater political will—are needed.

Given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, government has the primary responsibility to act and must do so in ways that protect all children’s intellectual development and mental and physical health, allowing them to thrive and achieve their fullest potential. However, there is much that we as individuals can do, too. First, we can become advocates for children by educating and electing leaders who will work for legislative and policy solutions benefiting children and, in so doing, benefit us all. Second, we can make smart energy decisions for our homes. We can choose a utility company that generates its power primarily from wind or solar, and, if possible, install solar panels. If renting, we can ask the landlord to put in place clean energy, which will save money at the same time.

Simple actions like replacing conventional incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs and adjusting thermostats down just 1 degree during the winter and up 1 degree in summer make a big difference when enough of us are doing them. We can conserve water, and eat more plant-based foods and less meat and dairy. We can choose to buy or lease an electric car, and use mass transit wherever possible.

Most importantly, we can help shift the culture by telling our friends, family, and neighbors about these choices and how they will improve our climate—and the health and future of our children.

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