You might think of early childhood as a point where children lose innocence. The newborn’s lungs are still developing and so lungs rupture. Even when they live until they are 18, the development of health, nutrition, language and development of social and emotional skills will not be complete.
These children face massive adversity. They are among the most vulnerable in our society. Every day, children’s lives are impacted by their environment. Not one child in our society is immune to the climate crisis.
Millions of American children live in poverty, many in households where there is no safety net like Medicare, Medicaid or childcare subsidies. These children face domestic violence, child abuse, neglect and sexual exploitation — and live in neighborhoods where they are exposed to even more danger. You might be surprised by how many social and environmental conditions are typical of poverty conditions.
Childhood poverty, polluted air, lack of food, unsafe schools, sleep deprivation, dangerous neighborhood and neighborhood housing stock and neglectful family members in the home, turn living conditions to experiences of vulnerability. These children are exposed to more disasters as they grow.
As they grow, they will be exposed to even more disasters, from housing and transportation environmental hazards, from sleep disorders from air pollution to pneumonia, from the effects of toxic lead in their blood from lack of housing.
The climate crisis affects Americans of all ages, but especially children. Children in America do not have the same opportunity as adults to get their educational and other cognitive needs met. While children can choose to quit school to help their families, not doing so means they will be denied access to an education. Children on the cusp of traditional adulthood have to choose between righting their wrongs and losing themselves to gang-related violence, mental health disorders or exposure to crime.
If our current trajectory for the environment continues, the vast majority of American children will be impacted by our choice to use and burn fossil fuels and not carry out the orderly transition to a renewable energy system that will remove 85 percent of our carbon from the atmosphere. Studies show that climate change could have devastating impacts on babies born after 2015, and by 2050, almost 90 percent of the world’s population will live in climate-impacted countries.
The impacts on children will be heavy, even if we turn away from fossil fuels. A recent science report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that even if we cut the carbon footprint across the economy by 96 percent, 19 percent of the economy would still be carbon-dependent by 2050 and 85 percent would be carbon-dependent by 2100. So the question is, how will our grandchildren feel about what we have done for ourselves and what we have done for them, and what effect will that have on our children?
Trump’s and Pruitt’s decision to roll back EPA rules protecting the air, water and health of children and the climate is wrong, both wrong for children and wrong for the rest of our country. What do we have to lose, save a little shoreline, to make sure that at least some fossil fuels are left behind to enrich companies that now promise to drop their promise of $70 a barrel?
And what, pray tell, do we have to lose in order to give children the science and the opportunities we want for them?
Who are we kidding, these children are here.
Instead of making the case for withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, what is the case for policy that works for the country, respects the science and does not change for political reasons — to leave our neighbors and children behind?
Let’s make clear that we are standing up for our children, not for just us.
Sister Susan McMahon is a professor in the sociology department at the University of Minnesota Duluth.