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Childhood Health Amid a Changing Climate the Focus of Askwith Education Forum

Chelsea Clinton, researchers, and climate activists discuss the impact of a warming planet on early development

Education’s place in the ongoing climate crisis was the subject of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s latest Askwith Forum on Wednesday night. A standing room-only crowd watched as Clinton Foundation co-chair Chelsea Clinton led a panel of experts in a discussion about climate change and the role educators can have in improving the lives of children living amid the impacts of a warming planet.

The event, “A Healthy Childhood in a Changing Climate,” opened with a conversation with Clinton and HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long. “We are living in a changing climate, and this is not some future problem. It’s here now,” Long said, introducing the event. “Education leaders must increasingly grapple with how to best support learners and communities, and we know that education leaders can advance solutions and enable children, learners, and families across the globe to thrive in this changing world.”

Chelsea Clinton
Chelsea Clinton, co-chair of the Clinton Foundation, speaks during the Askwith Education Forum, “A Healthy Childhood in a Changing Climate"
Photo: Jill Anderson

The panel featured climate and education experts across a variety of fields: Leah Austin, president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute; Lindsey Burghardt, chief science officer at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University; Gaurab Basu, director of education policy at the Center of Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health; and HGSE Senior Lecturer Junlei Li.

The panelists each acknowledged the daunting task educators and school systems face in both adapting to climate change’s impacts and the role institutions can play in making positive system change.

Askwith Education Forum panelists
L-r: Junlei Li, Gaurab Basu, Leah Austin, Lindsey Burghardt, and Chelsea Clinton
Photo: Jill Anderson

“It’s quite easy for people to feel overwhelmed. The scale is overwhelming,” said Clinton, noting that the enormous task at hand can make people cynical about the future.

“I think that cynicism is a great resource for the people who want to protect the status quo. And when you think about climate change you cannot protect the status quo,” Clinton continued. “So I am so thankful to be here to be focused on what we know works, and to hopefully attract more resources and more attention to those solutions so that we are always building a more sustainable climate.”

Burghardt shared insights from her Center’s research into how the environment impacts early childhood development, amplifying the climate crisis’s ever-increasing role in our lives. Austin spoke of eight essential outcomes her organization strives for in educating people of color, from access to clean water and air to equal opportunity for a high-quality education. Those wide-ranging health and education outcomes, the panelists noted, all face challenges amid a changing climate.

“What we’ve realized is that, quite frankly, each one of those eight outcomes will be completely disrupted by climate change if we’re not aggressively centering children in the climate work that we do,” Austin said.

Despite the increasing physical evidence of climate change’s devastating effects and the financial and philosophical challenges researchers face in turning evidence into meaningful policy changes, the mood of the panel was optimistic. As Clinton noted, if researchers and experts can still be optimistic about our future despite the devastating impacts of climate change around the world, everyone else should share that optimism, too. Each member of the panel agreed.

HGSE senior lecturer Junlei Li
HGSE senior lecturer Junlei Li speaks at the Askwith Education Forum
Photo: Jill Anderson

“We are living in a moment where our actions will have extraordinary implications for generations to come. And we have to embrace that deep work,” Basu said. “We are obviously living in extraordinary times in a lot of ways. There’s a bigness to this time, there’s complexity to this time and I think it’s really important.

“Climate change feels so complicated. We have to literally remake the world,” he continued. “With health and justice at the core. We didn’t do a good job of that the last 50 years. And here’s the thing: we know how to do that. I want to make sure everyone understands: we have everything we need to tackle this.”

Several panelists spoke about taking inspiration from a child’s perspective of the world, full not of dread and worry but awe and curiosity about what’s possible.

“Children see the world so much lower than we do. Which means that they see the things on the ground so much more clearly than we do,” Li said. “It’s not just about what we need to teach children, but how much we can learn from how children interact with their environment.”

You can watch the full Askwith event above.

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