At noon on Sept. 9, 2020, as wildfires raged in the West, the sky above my typically sunny Berkeley, California home turned bright orange as the air reeked of noxious smoke. I had never seen anything like it. Coupled with a pandemic requiring social distancing, I had no choice but to send my mask-wearing kids outside, dragging a floor lamp from inside so they could read and attend remote school. I was making the best of what felt like an apocalyptic situation. I was especially concerned about my 7-year-old daughter, who has struggled with asthma. Simply put, it was a parental nightmare.
I know that such nightmares are all too common for parents: My children’s story mirrors that of millions of our youngest ones across the nation. That apocalyptic day remains fresh in my mind, and it drives my work toward climate equity for all of our children – some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
The need for climate-emergency mitigation in the early care and education (ECE) sector hit home again last summer when I headed to California’s Coachella Valley with colleagues for some site visits. When I walked out of the airport, the 106-degree temperature felt like a sauna.
As we visited ECE programs across the valley, the outdoor play areas were empty. It was so hot that children could not touch the tricycles or play structures. These little ones were stuck inside their classrooms (air-conditioned, thankfully) all day long – classrooms never meant to serve such an all-encompassing purpose.
Questions swirled through my head:
What are we doing to create high-quality, safe environments for children in all types of climates and environments?
Are we taking measures like planting more trees to increase shade, replacing hot asphalt playgrounds to reduce heat islands, and installing heat pumps and solar panels to decarbonize child care environment?
What will the future look like if extreme weather and climate emergencies continue to worsen every year?
The Early Care and Education team at LIIF is committed to developing and implementing best practices to address our new climate reality: Any new or renovated space for child care environments should be constructed out of sustainable materials. That means, whenever possible, facilities should reduce or eliminate their reliance on fossil fuels and, for example, be installing solar panels, heat pumps and electric water heaters, plus greening outdoor spaces and creating adequate shade via a canopy of trees.
We have made this commitment because we work with over 4,000 grantees across California, deploying $350 million in capital in historically excluded communities. A majority of our grantees have requested items such as new HVAC systems, improved outdoor spaces and shade structures. A significant number want solar panels. We are seeking additional funding to plant trees with existing grantees in the state’s hottest counties.
Securing adequate housing is difficult enough without extreme weather events, as a recent EdSurge article illustrates.
While things on the West Coast have been extreme the last few years – temperatures hitting over 120 degrees in the deserts, atmospheric rivers causing flooding after years of drought and unprecedented wildfires – the East Coast has been not been spared from the climate emergency. For example, the air in New York City was recently deemed the worst on the planet when Canadian wildfire smoke drifted south, plus major flooding occurred in the tri-state area and New England just this week.
As our team began to more deeply explore the connection between climate, ECE and the built environment, we conducted a flood study for New York City providers. This research led to a comprehensive, interactive report showcasing how sea-level rise could impact thousands of ECE providers in all five boroughs. More than 100,000 properties in New York City are at risk of being severely affected by flooding over the next 30 years, and 25% of all residential lots in the dense urban environment intersect with a stormwater flood zone. Dwellings in basements and cellars – important and often more affordable housing opportunities for low-income residents who continue to struggle with rising housing costs – are likely most at risk.
From East to West, North to South, the regrettable reality is that our nation’s supply of child care is at serious risk.
Children – Especially Children of Color – are More Impacted
Child-development research indicates that compared to adults, young children’s brains and lungs are more affected by unhealthy air and extreme heat. For example, children breathe twice as often per minute than adults.
As LIIF centers racial equity in its capital deployment, we understand that children of color in historically excluded communities suffer more from the effects of extreme weather such as toxic air and high temperatures. Homes are not as well built. The air is often worse. There is under-resourcing to mitigate issues. This EPA report outlines the disparities.
Providers of color face the same consequences. We know that these educators are intimately aware of the needs of young children in their care. They open their homes and programs to our children and families every day, and they deserve to have resources to combat the negative effects of extreme weather and create safe, healthy and sustainable ECE environments.
While LIIF still has more to learn about the best solutions for climate mitigation for our ECE providers, particularly in communities of color, we are beginning to focus our efforts on the following three strategies.
- Centering ECE in communities. LIIF fosters the promising practice of co-locating both family child care homes and child care centers alongside affordable housing. Let’s provide more services where families live and simultaneously reduce their carbon footprint by reducing vehicle trips to another part of town. As a secondary benefit, we see this strategy as creating a community within a community. The State of Oregon has committed $10 million to incentivize co-location throughout the state. A definite win.
- Harnessing funding in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for ECE. The IRA presents an unprecedented opportunity to renovate existing facilities and build new facilities with a lower carbon footprint. Community decision-makers and federal agencies should prioritize the ECE sector, including family child care homes, for this funding.
- Utilizing and growing the expertise of local and national intermediaries. CDFIs, such as LIIF, exist to provide patient and flexible capital, paired with targeted expertise, while creating power and agency in communities across the country. We must efficaciously deploy resources in key markets across the country, focusing on entities specializing in serving the ECE sector or who wish to do so.
As parents and community members, we must spare our youngest children from the worst effects of future climate emergencies. Young ones cannot vote, and they cannot yet speak for themselves. It is up to us to enlist and work alongside partners within and outside of the ECE sector to address the climate emergencies and the effects we know our children ECE professionals face every day.
The Early Years Climate Action Task Force, of which I am a proud member, is exploring the impact of climate change on our youngest children and their families. Stay tuned this fall for another blog I will be writing outlining the Task Force’s recommendations for mitigating the deleterious effects of the climate emergency in the ECE sector. On behalf of the Task Force, I was recently invited to be on a podcast discussing this vital work (listen).