The Impact of Environment and Climate Change on Early Childhood Development

By David Willis, M.D., FAAP and Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.

When you look down the long road of history, it’s clear that humans have contributed to our changing climate and environment. The environment, which is so important to the quality of our life and for the well-being of the next generation, touches everyone — and we ignore the perils of climate change for the next generations at our own expense. Rising sea levels, drought, temperature extremes, raging wildfires, atmospheric rivers, flooding, stronger tornadoes and hurricanes: Millions of lives in our nation and around the world are being impacted by the devastating effects of climate change. These climate disasters are particularly disruptive to the lives of young children and their families, creating risks of toxic stress and ongoing adverse childhood experiences that can last a lifetime, unless buffered by strong, emotionally supportive relationships, social connections, nurturing care, and rapid resettlements. The future well-being of children who experience the impacts of growing climate crises will be impacted by the decisions we make today built on our current understandings and networks of climate change planning and leadership.

How might the movement to improve the environment and the Nurture Connection network align?

This question was explored in a recent conversation between two long-standing champions of young children, Joan Lombardi, Ph.D., Director of the Early Opportunities Initiative, and David Willis, M.D., FAAP, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy. They agreed about the undeniable alignment between those focused on climate change and safety, and those focused on advancing children’s health and well-being. There is a clear growing need for broad collaboration and cross-sector thinking and planning.

The two early childhood experts agree that the climate change movement and the growing movement to advance Early Relational Health within Nurture Connection are inextricably connected in their efforts to create healthy environments for the development of future generations. Vibrant, interconnected, and stable neighborhoods and communities are vital for raising families. Nurture Connection aims to contribute to the support of positive, nurturing relationships that promote healthy child development and act as a major protective factor in a child’s life. Both climate safe communities and nurturing care initiatives can learn from one another and align their focus on the development of future generations.

Climate change impacts the building and nurturing of human relationships.

Dr. Lombardi explained, “All young children need nurturing care, defined to include health, nutrition, early learning, safety and security, and responsive caregiving. These are important protective factors that contribute to optimal child development. At the same time, these core elements are threatened by environmental degradation. Air pollution, contaminated water, extreme heat, and weather events bring significant risk to the developing child and the well-being of their caregivers.”

Displacement of families from their communities will become a growing reality with changing climate impact, especially for low- and middle-income communities. In the United States, for example, when southern Texas communities experienced the catastrophic hurricane of 2017, NPR reported that over 100,000 homes were flooded and tens of thousands of families displaced. When Hurricane Irma hit coastal Florida the disaster forced more than 400,000 Floridian households to relocate while repairs were made to their homes. In 2020, Reuters reported that “[wild]fires have killed about 40 people in California, Oregon and Washington, destroyed nearly 6 million acres, and forced more than a half-million to either flee their homes or be prepared to do so.” These climate disruptions cause a ripple of eco-anxiety and heightened concern about the environment and the future across our families and youth.

Dr. Willis added that displacement and environmental destruction bring trauma by destabilizing family life and challenging families in their attempts to buffer their children from these events and to care for, nurture, and protect them. During these times of climate upheaval, attending to basic needs and providing ongoing social connections — with regular opportunities to share personal stories of the impact — are essential for helping families begin the journey toward healing, recovery, and stabilization. Such relational efforts offer hope and opportunities for a brighter future. As Daniel Siegel, M.D., said, “What is shareable, becomes bearable” — a foundational concept for recovery within and around families.

What can we do to turn the tide on this troubling trend?

“Taking action helps people feel a sense of agency. It brings hope. All over the world we are seeing young people stepping forward and speaking up for a more sustainable environment. Early childhood services can help build strong social-emotional skills in children and help foster a new generation that cares for the earth and each other.”

— Dr. Lombardi

According to a poll by the American Psychological Association, “more than half (56%) of American adults say climate change is the most important issue facing society today. People are taking some steps to combat climate change, with 6 in 10 saying they have changed a behavior to reduce their contribution to climate change. Nearly three-quarters (72%) say they are very or somewhat motivated to make changes.” These statistics show people working to respond to the moment and offer hope for ongoing adaptation for future generations.

Dr. Lombardi and Dr. Willis both acknowledge the need for heightened awareness and encourage people to act. Dr. Willis noted, “Given the environmental threats we’re facing, families and the early childhood systems that support them need to embrace opportunities to plan and mobilize locally and at the state and national levels to protect the environment and be ready for needed supports for young families. Through such collective efforts we are also better able to build families’ social connections, strength, and hope for the future. The big tent of Nurture Connection provides an opportunity to learn about efforts underway across the country that aim to build child and family strength with varied and timely collective initiatives.”

“We need to be asking, ‘Where are the organizing conversations? Where are we talking about the synergy between these movements? How do we shift from feeling overwhelmed to innovative thinking, collective actions, and hopeful planning?’ We want families asking, ‘What are we as a community going to do for our kids to build more environmentally safe early childhood places?’ Let’s start the public conversations at the local level, in community groups, faith-based settings, in meetings with local policymakers and in public forums. The time is now!” 

— Dr. Willis

Dr. Lombardi points to the RAPID Survey, which has been documenting the hopes and concerns of parents of young children across the United States for the past three years. She noted, “Parents want the best for their children and need us all to come together and support them.”

Nurture Connection also highlights the power of human connection as protective, preventive, and essential within safe and nurturing environments. More than ever, we must turn our attention to new policies and practices that protect family well-being and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

If you are interested in tracking environmental issues at the community level, the following tools and publications are a great place to start:

Environmental Public Health Tracking

Nurturing Care Framework

Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, a geospatial mapping tool developed by the Council on Environmental Quality

The EPA’s EJScreen, which combines environmental and socioeconomic indicators in maps and reports

The P2 EJ Facility Mapping Tool, which allows users to identify industrial businesses located in or adjacent to disadvantaged communities

To learn more about Nurture Connection, a growing movement to promote Early Relational Health, please visit


Joan Lombardi, Ph.D., is Director of the Early Opportunities Initiative and a visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Early Childhood, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University. Dr. Lombardi served as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2009–11).

David Willis, M.D., FAAP, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy. He was the Executive Director of the Perigee Fund, promoting Early Relational Health, and prior to that, Dr. Willis served as director of the Division of Home Visiting and Early Childhood Services at the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Maternal and Child Health Bureau.