University leadership program builds skills to tackle climate change

Rubin, L. ., & Witherspoon, N. . (2021). Climate Change, Environmental Justice and Children’s Health: Break the Cycle of Climate Change by Cultivating Future Leaders. Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk, 12(1). Retrieved from

Climate change poses the most significant threat to children by way of environmental risk factors. Toxic natural environments have begun to negatively impact the physical and mental well-being of children. A child's physical and mental health are still in the developing stages and thus are more vulnerable to the immediate adverse effects of climate change. This theory-oriented paper focused on the cyclical adverse effects of climate change on children of color and low-income families, simultaneously zeroing in on multiple initiatives in the United States advocating for children at the forefront of climate change effects. The researchers in this study explored the health consequences of climate change as both social and economic factors that have cumulative harmful effects on children. Further, the researchers acknowledged environmental racism as a significant contributing factor to the adverse effects of the climate change cycle. They end with discussing a program they developed to mentor young leaders to address the problems of climate change in their communities.

Children who grow up in poverty in the United States are more likely to be exposed to several adverse effects in their environment. Children of lower socioeconomic status often reside in older neighborhoods, where air quality is poor, there is a higher risk of being exposed to lead paint, and there is a higher likelihood of being exposed to pollution and mold. If children get sick because of these conditions, it may lead to more missed school days and mounting medical expenses. This cycle takes a physical and psychological toll on the bodies and minds of children

The researchers pointed to a few examples of programs that have worked to break the cycle of poverty and health disparities. For example, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 proposed several social programs to facilitate health and general welfare of American residents. At a local scale, the researchers discussed the 1962 Perry preschool project. The project worked with low-income Black preschool children in Ypsilanti, Michigan. One group of children, 3 to 4 years-old, spent a few hours each day in a school classroom, and teachers visited the children's homes for a few hours on the weekends, for two years. Another group of children served as the control group and did not receive those services. When a researcher examined the children many years later as adults, the participants who received the services were more likely to go to college, earn a living wage, and less likely to commit crimes. Even the children of those participants were more likely to have similar positive outcomes. Overall, the program was successful.

A later initiative named Break the Cycle, conducted by a different cohort of researchers, was started in 2004. It involves university students across the globe who develop projects to address the economic, social, and environmental factors affecting children's health, development, and education. Students work with faculty mentors on a project of their choosing, present the project at a national conference, and publish the final product. Evaluations show the program increases student knowledge on children's environmental health and health disparities. It also influences their career choices.

The authors of this paper then moved their discussion to focus how children's health will be impacted by climate change, particularly children of color and those from low-income households. For example, there are reports of increased asthma rates during pollen seasons, increased frequency of natural disasters, and overall, the perpetual cycle of cause and effect such as seen in rising temperatures. Exposure to frontline climate change effects cause children to suffer physically and psychologically. The authors note how, similar to the need end health disparities for children, is the need to address climate change. Thus, they designed a new program like Break the Cycle, and titled it Break the Cycle of Climate Change (BCCC). Through projects advised by mentors, university students in this program would explore the interactions between children's health, environmental justice, and climate change and how to address them. The goal is to create future leaders who can support children's health, aid those affected by natural disasters, and overall care for their communities in the climate crisis.

This study is based on the results of previous studies conducted by other researchers in various settings. These conditions render this discussion not generalizable for all communities, as it is possible differing perspectives are missing in this work. Additionally, though they describe the premise for the BCCC program, they do not describe if it has been tested with students yet.

The Bottom Line

This theory-oriented paper focuses on the adverse effects of climate change on children of color and low-income families, simultaneously zeroing in on multiple initiatives advocating for children at the forefront of climate change effects. Researchers explore the variety of initiatives across the United States to break the cycle of environmental health disparities. The authors reviewed programs that worked with preschool programs and working with university students. They discussed a new program called Break the Cycle of Climate Change that would work with university students to design projects that address climate change, children's health, and environmental justice.

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