How Will Climate Change Impact Children’s Health and Development?

Sep 10, 2020

by Mary Stauble

“Together we have an extraordinary opportunity to help shape NASEM’s approach to climate and child health and hopefully advance work that will benefit the health and well-being of children.” Dr. Aaron Bernstein, MD 

Last month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) held a two-day planning meeting on “The Impact of Climate Change on Children’s Health and Development.” I was invited to attend as a participant and respond to the questionHow does climate change impact the work you do and drive your work?”

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, led the discussion between a diverse group of 35 researchers, health professionals, community advocates, educators, and youth climate activists including Mary Ellis Stevens, a leader of the Climate Strike movement in Charlotte

Together we looked at the health effects of climate change on children over the course of their development, from pregnancy through adolescence. This included examinations of specific facets of climate impacts, such as food and nutrition, the built-in environment, and clean air. Each participant presented their research or experience in these various areas to discuss how climate change is shaping the health and development of children.

The evidence was startling. Globally, children are estimated to bear 88% of the burden of disease due to climate change, with the poorest being disproportionately affected. Our children are being harmed daily by climate change, and it may only get worse from here. A few key points:

  • The impact of climate change on children’s health starts during pregnancy. Extreme heat and poor air quality are associated with premature birth, low birth weight, and increased odds of congenital heart defects and other long term health consequences.
  • Climate change disproportionately affects people of color, lower-income communities, communities with less political power, and children.
  • Climate change impacts children’s mental health, with trauma from extreme weather events, increased anxiety over an uncertain future (AKA eco-anxiety), and greater stress on families.
  • Climate change is impacting both the quantity, quality, and availability of food produced globally.
  • Clean water is becoming a scarce resource, and this problem will only increase as climate change intensifies. Children have increased exposure to water contaminated with bacteria, parasites, viruses, and mycotoxins, which all lead to a variety of health problems


Addressing these problems will require people working on a variety of fronts, which is why it was so hopeful to have such a diverse group participating in this discussion. We need to advance climate and health solutions from a variety of angles and tailor messages to a range of audiences including health professionals, communities, and schools. We also need to engage communities and stakeholders to build trust and meet people where they are. Over the next few months, a statement of tasks will be created from our investigation, and action items will be identified for future NASEM projects.

There is much work to be done to ensure the well-being of present and future children. But climate solutions do exist. Let’s all get to work.

Learn more about available climate solutions by checking out the Climate Optimist Newsletter. If you are interested in becoming a climate advocate in your community,  join Clean Air Carolina and ecoAmerica for our Climate Ambassador Training to gain the knowledge, hands-on experience, and resources you need to inspire real climate action.