There are few efforts as universally expected as that of defending and protecting children from the evils of the world.
Every world religion, every legitimate governing body exhorts us to defend the innocent. When evil— in the form of force, arrogance, jealousy, control, lust, trickery — comes head-to-head with the innocence of children and their open willingness to be led, we all instinctively step in with fists raised.
I remember when I was a brand new mother, faced with potential harm to my newborn daughter. I felt like a mix between a mother lion and an openly bleeding heart. I am certain I would not have hesitated to lay down my life to protect and defend her from all evils, natural and spiritual.
Yet even in this realm, we adults can become complacent, even blind to what is attacking our children. When a sexual perpetrator’s deeds are recounted in grisly detail on TV, people notice. But subtler, more ongoing and more complex examples of harm can go unchallenged.
One of these is the insidious effect that air pollution and fossil fuel emissions in the air have on the health of millions of children worldwide, and hundreds in our own town.
We’ve long known about the ill effects of breathing air pollutants that come from combustible fossil fuels, whether from the cigarette, chimney, power plant or vehicle.
We’ve also known for years that, just as children’s spirits are more vulnerable to evil forces, their bodies are more vulnerable to air pollutants than adults. They are still growing and forming lung cells. Their hearts are beating faster and their lungs are inhaling more quickly than adults. Children who grow up in urban areas thick with smog have compromised health from the womb onward.
But what about children growing up in our fresh, clean north shore air? you ask. Surely these children are the lucky ones.
Yes and no.
We are blessed with air that would give millions of children around the world instant relief. But the fact that our air is warmer and contains more carbon, methane and moisture, has multiple effects.
As a parent I hear more stories of asthma, allergies and other undefined respiratory issues arising with children than I can recall from earlier times. Even attending a school where buses idle outside school buildings decreases the air quality in the schools. We see children standing around running engines all the time with little thought about how this is affecting their long-term health.
According to a new report published by the medical journal The Lancet, the warming world, regardless of local pollution, will create problems for children in several areas: infectious diseases, heat-related stress and increasing malnutrition.
Increased insecurity and instability are also a hallmark of climate change that wear on the psyches of children in particular.
“Every child born today will be affected by climate change. As a 30-year volunteer of the American Lung Association, including former chairman of the nationwide organization, I understand the threats of air pollution on lung health and the devastating impacts of lung disease on our families and communities … The link between air pollution, climate change and lung health could not be more clear,” said Anthony DeLucia, a physician in Tennessee.
Our children need us to take care of them. We are responsible for them.
In a talk at the Center of the American Experiment in 1997, Michael Melved, who speaks to audiences of every political persuasion and who champions the rights of children to have childhoods, said, “The essence of being a 7-year-old should be that you can rely on other people to protect you.”
Today, look at the thousands of teenagers who have spoken out on climate change. They are cutting short their childhoods to deal with something that to them feels urgent and unaddressed. I would argue that we need to not just protect children against future threats but also defend them, right now, against forces that would hurt them and eliminate their ability to draw deep, painless breaths.
The Advent season is a good time to pay attention to children. As Melved put it, “security, optimism and a sense of wonder should be the birthright of every American child.”
These things do not come automatically; they are in our adult hands. The first step is to do our best to provide a world where security, optimism and wonder come naturally.
Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.