Climate change affects the weather, the air we breathe and the stability of our surroundings — and children’s health is especially vulnerable to the poor air quality, longer allergy seasons, infectious diseases and extreme heat that make climate change a public health threat.
Children’s bodies are still developing. They don’t have control of their surroundings. And kids who aren’t White, whose families are low-income or who don’t speak much English will be hit the hardest if temperatures rise, according to a new report published Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Researchers examined what would happen if the world warms 2 degrees Celsius — it’s already up 1.1 degrees from pre-industrial levels, despite global leaders’ pledges to limit it to 1.5 degrees — and if it warms by 4 degrees.
The report encouraged parents and caregivers to educate children on climate-related health threats and to encourage children to speak up when they’re feeling uncomfortable or unwell. Here are four ways a warming planet will affect — and in some cases, already is affecting — children, according to the report.
1. Asthma and severe allergies
Children have small airways and developing immune systems, which means they’re already more likely to get respiratory diseases and suffer from allergies. As rising temperatures make wildfires more common, children will be hit harder by smoke in the air and fire-related air pollution, the report states.
On top of that, carbon dioxide makes plants release more pollen — making allergies worse. According to the report, climate change could increase oak, birch, and grass pollen so severely that pediatric asthma-related emergency room visits could increase 17%-30% annually. Similarly, new cases of pediatric asthma would increase between 4% and 11%.
2. Diseases carried by insects
Warm, humid weather creates favorable conditions for disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and ticks. According to the report, as temperatures rise, so will pediatric cases of diseases like Lyme disease and West Nile virus. The report estimates Lyme disease in children is projected to increase by 79% to 241% per year.
Anywhere from 1 to 2 million children may lose their homes temporarily or permanently due to coastal flooding alone. Experiencing homelessness, even for a short time, can affect a child’s development and lead to “significantly higher rates of emotional, behavioral, and immediate and long-term health problems,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services,
4. Learning problems and lower grades
Severe heat impacts how well children learn. The report found that increased temperatures could cause students to do 4% to 7% worse academically, the report found. And that can affect future income, translating to billions in lost income annually across graduating classes and the loss of thousands of dollars for individual students.
These climate threats can have severe consequences for a child’s development, the report states. A child left homeless by a flood or who suffers from a chronic disease is more likely to struggle in school, which can hinder their academic and professional future. And, being displaced from one’s home can cause lifelong trauma.
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement to CBS News that, until the root cause of climate change is stopped — burning fossil fuels — children will continue to be at high risk of things like severe asthma and allergies.
He said that parents can try to keep their kid’s allergies at bay by frequently cleaning their clothing, hands and face. This helps clean off pollen and should especially be done before bedtime. Bernstein, who is unaffiliated with the EPA study, also recommended parents find online resources that track environmental hazards such as pollen count and air quality forecasts.