As part of its coverage of Climate Week (Sept. 23-29), the Gazette is running a series of stories on the issues involved, while spotlighting areas of University involvement, including research and programs designed to make a difference. For more information, visit the Tackling Climate Change site.
Global one-day strikes, driven by young people demanding action against climate change, are planned for Sept. 20 and 27, sandwiched around a meeting next week of world leaders on the issue at the United Nations. The protests grew out of 15-year-old Greta Thunberg’s strike last year outside the Swedish Parliament, during which she demanded climate action. The protest caused her to miss classes, which led to strikes by other students, and now to the global protests.
To understand better the issues in play and the particular dangers that climate change poses for the world’s children, the Gazette spoke with Aaron Bernstein, co-director of the Harvard Chan School’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment and a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Gazette: Global climate strikes, driven by youth, are planned for the next week. Do you see them as a good thing or a bad thing?
Bernstein: The strikes make clear that our children recognize, perhaps more than us adults in the world, what’s at stake with climate change. They are going so far as to walk out of class to make us realize how much they care about this.
Gazette: Adults often dismiss the protests of children because they’re seen as inexperienced and don’t understand the world. But in this case should we listen to them?
Bernstein: Who has more at stake than the people on the planet who have the longest lifespans ahead of them? It may not be surprising that our children are leading on this because they’ve been educated on the subject, and many, perhaps most, adults have not. In many ways, they may understand what’s at stake for everybody, including themselves, more than the adults in the room. So there’s a compelling reason to listen to what they’re telling us about what needs to be done.
Gazette: Your area of expertise is children’s health and climate. What’s at stake for them with regards to health?
Bernstein: Climate change comes mostly from burning fossil fuels, and burning fossil fuels poses harms to children. Air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels can damage their developing lungs and brains. Children may have lifelong health impacts from the trauma that can come with extreme weather events, like hurricanes and wildfires.
On the flip side, if we fight climate change and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, we can combat a host of childhood health problems such as obesity — arguably the single biggest threat to our children’s health today — because we’ll also have better air quality, better public transit, and more kids walking and biking. So, our fight to combat climate change is a fight for our children’s health, and when we succeed, we will have achieved an enormous health victory for our children. And what could be better than that?
Gazette: What about changing patterns of disease? Will warming also bring pests and infectious disease further north?
Bernstein: There’s reason to be concerned about warming and how rainfall events are becoming heavier, and what these mean for where insects that transmit disease might want to live. There’s evidence that ticks that transmit Lyme disease are moving northward into upper parts of New England, for instance. There’s some evidence that eastern equine encephalitis may be moving northward. We need to understand a lot more about how our changing climate may influence these diseases to keep people, and especially children, healthy.