By Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH, physician in Medicine at Children’s and faculty, Center for Health and the Global Environment
For many parents, having kids changes everything (or almost everything). Sleep schedules, meal choices, work routines and more may get revamped with the birth of a child. The transformation, though, often goes still deeper.
More so than at any other point in life, new parents rethink their relationship with the environment and especially how it may affect the health of their child. Find a home with newly purchased water filters and air purifiers, hormone-free meat and milk, pesticide-free produce and whose inhabitants spend more time spent outdoors than most and you likely have found yourself the home of a family with young children.
The appearance of so many new things speaks to how potent a child’s presence can be to their parents’ views on the environment and well-being. That parents have been influential advocates for improvements in the quality of air, water and food in the United States over the past 50 years, then, comes as little surprise.
In the next 50 years as parents think about the environment and their children they will increasingly embrace another cause for the sake of their children’s health: climate change. Though most people know that climate change affects the weather, and some can identify fossil fuel combustion as the cause of upheaval in temperatures and precipitation patterns, few people identify climate change as a health concern, particularly for children. But it most assuredly is.
In a word, climate change means uncertainty. When it comes to Earth’s climate, we’re lucky to be living right now, because for the past 15,000 years, it has been uncharacteristically stable. Temperatures have stuck within a range befitting our well-being, allowing for, among other things, widespread agriculture and an ample fresh water. But climate change threatens to propel us out of that stable pattern.
A change in our climate can affect our welfare in a number of ways. It doesn’t take a statistics guru to recognize that raising the temperature of the planet by several degrees on average (which is our best guess as to where we’re headed by 2100 unless we make some drastic changes to how we get our energy) makes heat waves more likely and more severe. A brutal week-long heat wave baked Europe in 2003. Temperatures in Paris hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit for seven days; tens of thousands of people lost their lives. Although no individual weather event can be pegged as a singular consequence of climate change, the best available science indicates that greenhouse gas warming that has occurred to date doubled the odds that such a severe heat wave might occur.
Too much heat in and of itself isn’t healthy, but heat also factors into other health problems. With the right mix of tailpipe emissions, heat catalyzes the production of ozone – one of smog’s dirtiest players – that can trigger asthma flares and, as emerging evidence suggests, may promote the development of asthma.
Heat also melts ice, and since more than half the water supply in Western states comes from snow, more heat is not good news. With warmer temperatures, the snow melts and doesn’t come back, thereby worsening water scarcity and quality in the West.
The changing climate also affects food. Heat harms livestock just as it may harm us. In 2006, a weeklong summer heat wave in California lead to the deaths of more than 25,000 cattle and 700,000 fowl.
Crops too may have trouble with high temperatures. Where an insect can survive and how often it can reproduce depends directly on how warm it is. Warming opens the door to pests and pathogens on staple crops like corn and soybeans that were previously frozen out of contention. Warming doesn’t discriminate among insects, either. Bugs that transmit diseases to humans have also been on the move to adapt to temperature shifts and this may affect a number of infections, including Lyme disease here in New England, West Nile Virus and others.
So what can a parent to do? A lot, actually.
- According to the most recent census data, parents are among the 20 percent of Americans who carpool, take public transit or bike to work.
- They have taken an increasing interest in farmer’s markets, which have tripled in number in the past 15 years, and they are eating more locally grown fruits and vegetables.
- They reuse things more often and recycle what’s left over: the percent of municipal solid waste diverted from landfills has doubled since 1990. Tellingly (if somewhat sadly) more Americans recycle than typically vote in a presidential election.
- They replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL) so that nearly 30 percent of all lighting now uses CFLs (in 2006 this figure was less than 10 percent).
To get a sense of how important each of these actions is to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, consider that:
- about 15 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions come from local transportation
- roughly 12 percent of emissions stem from transportation of food (note that if you drive a gas guzzler to a farmer’s market the carbon savings are likely lost)
- almost 10 percent of an average home’s energy use goes into lighting and that CFLs use a quarter of the energy that incandescents do. (For those concerned about the small amounts of mercury in CFLs, consider that most of your mercury exposure comes from the burning of coal for electricity).
Note that none of these actions were initiated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Surveys show that people carpool and install CFLs to save money; eat local produce because it tastes better and they like knowing where their food comes from; recycle because, well, that’s what Americans do. And that may be the most important point of all.
If we are to tackle climate change, the path to success is one of habit and routine. While some may do what’s necessary because they believe it will make the world healthier for their children, or because they’d rather avoid uncertainty, or simply because it’s the right thing to do, many will not.
To lay a path that keeps us in the climate groove, parents need to let policymakers know that dealing with climate change matters, especially for their and their children’s health. Only with good policies will the choices that reduce our carbon footprints be the ones that are easier on our wallets and our minds. But most important of all to our success may be the value of your example to your child, and how you lead your life in regard to the planet you live on and that they will grow-up in, especially at that moment you think anew about the environment because of your child.
This New York Times article offers another pediatrician’s advice on ‘Green’ Parenting.
Read this Q&A with Bernstein on the Green Nursery blog.