How climate change is already affecting children’s brains
Admittedly, the data on the planetary crisis, the cascading effects on health and the increasing inequalities due to climate change are particularly discouraging. In fact, many of us look the other way because of the magnitude of the problem. What if our refusal to change our habits affected future generations? Will we be more attentive to the problem?
Over the past two decades, research by many scientists has revealed children’s vulnerability to climate change and air pollution, which is largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels. They studied pregnant women and their children and found that climate change and air pollution seriously damage children’s health and brain development, even in the womb.
However, there are political, technological and individual solutions, and much effort can and should be made.
Awareness of the effects of climate change and air pollution on the developing brain has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. Research has linked prenatal and postnatal air pollution exposure to reduced IQ and other cognitive problems, developmental disabilities such as ADHD and autism, depression and mental illness, anxiety, and even structural changes in children’s brains.
Studies have also shown that climate-related travel leads to educational disruption and mental health problems in children, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
These conditions often persist and affect brain health and function well into adulthood. They also add to the more widely recognized list of harms associated with climate change and air pollution: heat-related illnesses, drownings, physical trauma from severe storms and floods, premature and low-birth-weight babies, asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Importantly, new understanding of the vulnerability of the fetal brain has debunked several myths.
The first was that the placenta played the role of a perfect barrier, protecting the fetus from the effects of harmful agents in the maternal environment. It was thought that the baby’s brain was effectively protected by a “blood-brain barrier” that acted as a sentinel to prevent toxic substances from passing into the fetus’s brain. We already know that toxic chemicals and stress experienced by a pregnant mother can pass to the developing fetus and brain.
There are many reasons why the young brain is so vulnerable. Consider that almost all of the 100 billion nerve cells in our adult brain were formed during childhood, and much of the brain’s architecture was built during this time. The weakness continues into the early years as the brain continues to develop.
The potential cumulative impact on mental health of simultaneous exposure to environmental and climate “shocks” such as severe drought, flooding, water scarcity, and high levels of air pollution is a growing concern. . It is estimated that one in three children worldwide lives in areas with at least four of these environmental “shocks”.
We know that adverse childhood experiences increase the risk of depression and anxiety disorders both in the short term and in adulthood.
Even if children have not directly experienced climate shock, the stress of being aware of climate change and its impacts increases the risk of developing mental health problems in young people, known as climate change anxiety. About 60% of young people participating in a global survey said they are extremely concerned about climate change. Almost half of young people said that their daily life is negatively affected by these feelings.
To avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, our governments must meet the targets: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% of 2005 levels by 2030 and to achieve net zero by 2050. Solutions already exist. and rapidly increasing energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy capacity (mainly solar and wind), replacing thermal cars with electric cars and accelerating the transition to electrification of buildings and industries, all with different forms of energy storage, expanding transmission, and protecting forests and land improving carbon storage capacity.
Given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, governments have an obligation to act to protect the intellectual development, mental and physical health of all children so they can thrive and reach their potential.
However, we can also do a lot as individuals to fight climate change.
First, we can be advocates for children by educating and voting for leaders who will work to protect future generations. We can also make smart energy decisions for our homes. We can choose a utility company that produces electricity mainly from wind or solar energy and install solar panels if possible.
Simple actions like installing LED lights, turning down the heat a few degrees in the winter and limiting the use of air conditioning in the summer make a big difference when enough people do it. We can also have a more vegetable diet and consume less meat and dairy products.
More importantly, we can help educate everyone around us about these choices and how they will improve our climate and our children’s health and future.