A version of this post was originally published on January 14, 2022. It has been updated.
When I was expecting my child two years ago, I could not help but think of what the future with my little one would look like. My thoughts were probably familiar to all expecting mothers: I imagined how I would hold my baby close to my heart and how I would teach him all about the world while he grew from a baby to a kid to an adult.
As an atmospheric scientist focusing on climate change, those thoughts were also accompanied by the worry of what kind of environment my baby would grow up in if our planet continues to warm while hazardous weather events continue to affect mothers and kids all around the world.
Before I even became a mother, I understood that dealing with the stress of climate change is yet another example of the emotional labor women—and especially mothers—are left to manage.
Climate change is a gender issue
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) convened more than 100 global leaders in Glasgow to agree on climate change solutions and advance action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The concern of women bearing the brunt of climate change became a major topic of conversation, illustrating how climate change is a gender issue.
Women and climate change are two things that aren't usually in the same sentence, and frequently, it’s an issue that is ignored.
We must confront the truth about how climate change harms women.
Women, particularly pregnant women in the United States, are affected by the climate crisis in extreme ways. Pollutants from automobiles, fossil fuel plants, and smoke from wildfires degrade air quality, which means pregnant women are more likely to suffer from cardiac disease and respiratory disease, in addition to mental health stressors. According to a 2020 JAMA Network study, which reviewed more than 32 million U.S. births, air pollution and heat exposure, made worse by climate change, significantly increases the risk to maternal, fetal and infant health. Their findings also revealed more worrisome news: Black mothers and babies are harmed at a much higher rate than the population at large.
It’s clear: The toll on our babies’ health will only continue to grow as climate change worsens.
It’s time to take action
Moms across the U.S. have been raising the alarm on climate change's effect on maternal health. In April 2021, a coalition of environmental, human rights and maternal health organizations wrote a letter to President Biden urging him to take action to address climate change’s impact on maternal and infant health outcomes within the U.S.
We will need bold solutions to protect the health of pregnant women amidst the extreme weather events occurring across the country.
As a scientist, and a mom with a young child, I am ready for this issue to be taken seriously. We have no time to waste. Climate change affects all of us—we know this from last summer’s record-setting wildfires, heat waves and droughts, and from the IPCC’s warning that this is a code red moment for humanity. We need everyone from all parts of life to start taking action.
I began taking action myself by joining Science Moms, the largest educational campaign on climate change since 2007. Science Moms aims to demystify climate science for moms around the country by providing them with tools and resources to advocate for climate solutions and create a safer world for their children.
I’m not a politician; I’m a scientist and a mom. And I’m here to say that climate change is real and we have to do something about it—together.
How to stay healthy when pregnant in extreme weather
The good news? There are things we can do to make a difference. Here are some tips to help you stay healthy during your pregnancy amidst the climate crisis, and ways to advocate for long-term change:
1. Start the climate conversation—it’s the most powerful thing you can do.
The climate crisis has been causing anxiety and worries about the future, understandably so, considering the countless extreme weather events we have experienced this summer across the country. Regardless, we need to make space to have conversations with our friends and family about climate change and its impact on our world so that we can all be equipped with the tools we need to fight for sensible climate solutions. As a household, we have already started having this conversation with our young child and we try to discuss the topic at playdates and gatherings with other parents and friends.
2. Take precautions when doing activities outside in extreme heat.
Exposure to heat can increase your chances of having a baby with a birth defect or other reproductive problems. To reduce your exposure and maintain a healthier pregnancy, it’s recommended that you move to a cooler place, drink water and wear looser clothing when you're outside.
3. Avoid being outside when the air quality is low.
Toxic air quality can have long-term impacts on children’s health, including lower birth weights and abnormal lung development. It’s important to not exercise outdoors during high-pollution days and steer clear of places where people smoke if possible. Newborn babies are especially sensitive to bad air quality—I know this first hand because I had to stay inside my house with my 6-month-old baby when the 2020 Colorado wildfires were causing our air quality to be exceptionally poor.
4. Tell your leaders you want to see action to protect your children’s futures. Everyone reading—especially moms—can help tell our leaders we need action. Go to sciencemoms.com to learn how you can get involved by sharing videos, our toolkit and signing up for the Science Moms newsletter, and make sure to follow Science Moms on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more information about our campaign.
Written by Dr. Rosimar Rios-Berrios
Dr. Rosimar Rios-Berrios is a Science Mom (sciencemoms.com) and scientist at the National Center for
Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. Her research focuses on high-impact
weather, especially tropical cyclones, numerical weather prediction, and precipitation extremes.
Dr. Rios-Berrios was born and raised in Puerto Rico where her family endured the devastating
effects of Hurricane Maria. Her experience inspired her to further understand how climate
change impacts extreme weather events.