My mind is racing as I head to the airport to travel to the COP 28 United Nations Climate Change Conference. I have been thinking back on my two-plus decades of work in the early care and education (ECE) sector. I have seen some significant positive impacts, yet many longtime challenges remain. One challenge that has more recently come to light for me is climate change and its effect on very young children and their caregivers. The situation is especially dire in the Global South — and in any low-income community across the planet. Yet I remain hopeful that together we can slow, and even reverse, the worst impacts of climate change.
Also, as the mother of two children myself, every day I think about what I can do to address climate change so all of our children have a healthy, sustainable future. This issue really hit home a couple of years ago when I was with colleagues visiting child care programs in California’s Coachella Valley. It was 106 degrees that day, and children could not play outside. It was too hot to touch the play structures, the tricycles or even the railings that lead to the play area. Then, smoky air caused by local wildfires, coupled with social distancing caused by the pandemic, created an otherworldly scene: My daughter and her classmates sitting outside, attending remote school in the middle of the day with an eerie, orange-hued sky above.
I am proud of the impact I was able to make on a local level in Alameda County, California, drawing attention to low wages of child care providers and the severe lack of child care supply that meets family’s needs. In my current role at the Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), our talented team provides facilities grants, technical assistance, capacity building and advisory services across the nation, from Oregon to Georgia, New York to San Diego. Being at COP 28 takes my ECE work, and LIIF’s, to a global level – a milestone for me personally and for our 40-year-old community development financial institution (CDFI).
That is why I am excited to soon be among a worldwide group of subject matter experts on this timely subject, sharing best practices and learning of common threads around early childhood, the built environment and climate.
Capita and the Aspen Institute’s U.S. Early Years Climate Action Task Force
Over the past year, I served as a member of the U.S. Early Years Climate Action Task Force. The Task Force was the first of its kind in the country, and one of the first worldwide. More countries are interested in replicating this process. It was a distinct honor to join climate scientists, climate activists and early childhood experts for deeply insightful conversations around climate and early childhood. For example, I learned the simple fact that children take twice as many breaths per minute than adults, making them disproportionately vulnerable when air quality is poor. I came away with a renewed belief that early childhood and the early care and education sector must be prioritized in any conversation around climate, resiliency and mitigation in communities. You can hear more in my conversation with Elliot Haspel on this Capita podcast.
As the only Task Force member from a financial institution, I was able to bring a unique perspective at the intersection of child care, climate and the built environment. I encouraged members to keep in mind how many hours our youngest children spend in child care. As one of the main places they spend their time, we must bring climate mitigation resources to the ECE sector.
This robust discourse led to the publication of a comprehensive report. The U.S. Early Years Climate Action Plan, entitled “Flourishing Children, Healthy Communities and a Stronger Nation,” contains recommendations relevant to anyone working in the ECE sector.
Some salient points from the report are:
- Build cross-agency collaboration. This is a way to support children and families in a changing climate. Cross-agency collaboration can help advance a comprehensive approach to supporting children and families. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Children’s Health Protection and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, as well as its Health Resources and Services Administration, should collaborate on climate-related efforts.
- Include the perspectives of children and their caregivers. Climate-related policy decisions must be made by all involved. Federal agencies make smarter, more-sensitive policy decisions when they engage and partner with people affected by a problem or issue — including young children.
- Increase access to mental health support. Young children and families need assistance as they endeavor to cope with the effects of climate change. Our disrupted climate can increase anxiety for children and families.
- Provide technical assistance and workforce training. We must help providers understand the impacts of climate change on young children and how to support their evolving needs. Providers must understand how climate change will impact young children’s health, well-being and learning, plus how they can improve outcomes for young children and their families.
- Establish dedicated infrastructure funding. This is required for maintenance and upgrades to child- and family-facing programs. The federal government can dedicate funding to help child care programs and health care facilities switch to clean energy, improve air and water quality, create sustainable outdoor and indoor play spaces, and undertake other climate-related facility upgrades.
- Help communities address migration or displacement challenges. As climate change intensifies, more young children and their families will be compelled to move or may be displaced due to storms, floods and other climate-related disasters. Communities face barriers to receiving and integrating these migrants. The federal government can equip communities to anticipate and address the distinct health, safety and nutritional needs of infants, toddlers and expecting parents who have been displaced.
LIIF’s Work Around ECE and Climate Mitigation
LIIF, as a CDFI, has played a unique role in the ECE sector for 25 years. Our efforts scaled dramatically during the pandemic, as government agencies came to us to manage facilities grants for ECE businesses. These agencies knew that, as an inherent part of our CDFI work, LIIF was adept at flexibly deploying capital into historically excluded communities via culturally responsive outreach. LIIF is now partnering with the State of California to disburse up to $350 million in facilities grants to providers in every county in the state. Not surprisingly, around 40% of applicants requested upgrades related to climate mitigation. Think solar panels, HVAC systems, shade structures and even misting systems to keep children cool.
LIIF is also at the nexus of ECE and affordable housing in low- to moderate-income communities. We have written extensively to promote the practice of co-location, where affordable housing and ECE are built side-by-side to enhance convenience for families and lower their carbon footprint. With local partners, we recently launched Build Up Oregon, which focuses on incentivizing co-location throughout that state.
LIIF’s work is centered on racial equity – and in the case of ECE, gender equity is also key. Of the ECE programs LIIF supports with grant funding, 79% are operated by women of color and 84% identify as BIPOC. These small businesses often do not have access to the traditional financing necessary to build high-quality environments where children can learn and grow. To complicate matters, there is no ongoing federal funding source to construct new or majorly renovate ECE facilities and outdoor spaces. With the huge demand for energy efficiency measures and outdoor spaces among providers just in California alone, it is critical for lawmakers to prioritize climate resources for ECE to level the playing field.
Call to Action
The good news is that the Biden administration and Congress have put forth the United States’ largest climate investment ever: the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act (IIJA), funded at $1.2 trillion; and the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), with $27 billion in the coffers as part of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). We need young children to be prioritized in both acts.
We need government – local, state and federal – to collaborate with urban planners and climate experts. This vital work needs to be supported by banks, foundations and philanthropists focused on adaptation finance.
Young children cannot speak for themselves, they cannot vote, yet they have the most at stake. It is our job to ensure that decisionmakers prioritize young children and those who care for and nurture them as we address the climate emergency.