As someone who has worked on environmental issues her whole career, Heather McTeer Toney knows the impact climate change has on her kids. Here are the simple things she does to make a difference.

By Heather McTeer Toney
October 04, 2019
Heather McTeer Toney
Courtesy of Heather McTeer Toney

When I discovered I was pregnant with my son, I was serving as the regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Southeast and working to ensure equity in environmental policy and safety for those most impacted by climate change. The Southeast region of EPA is home to eight states, more than a quarter of the nation’s population, and some of the most diverse landscapes our country has to offer. Co-existing with the natural beauty and resources are years of air pollution, sea-level rise, coal ash ponds, and environmental injustices that have plagued impoverished communities for generations. At 40, I would be giving birth to my first child, and with all that I knew about our changing climate and environment, I was terrified. 

I’ve worked on climate issues my entire career, including when I served as mayor of my hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. I have firsthand experience of how climate change can alter a community, especially children. The youth is especially susceptible to things like heat, asthma, allergies, and insect-borne diseases, which are all made worse from extreme weather and emissions. Behavior and mental health challenges have also been directly linked to a worsening climate. Studies even connect climate change to violent crime. Today’s evidence of hot weather and shootings is an unfortunate “I told you so.”

While I was already a mom to my bonus children (my stepchildren), being pregnant brought me even closer to other issues. The idea that my unborn son may suffer from something like the Zika virus, a harm likely made worse because of climate change, made every insect an enemy. I met with farmworkers in Florida who went through great pains to make sure they didn't bring home pesticides on their clothing. My heart ached for the mothers of Flint, Michigan when the water crisis hit in April 2014. My environmental work was no longer simply to develop and implement sound science policy and good governance—it was to save lives and ensure our planet is habitable for kids in the years to come. My fear became my focus. After leaving EPA at the end of the Obama administration, I joined the dedicated team at Moms Clean Air Force. We are demanding 100 percent clean energy no later than 2050. 

Courtesy of Heather McTeer Toney

My son is now a vibrant, active little boy who loves to run and despises green vegetables. We face the daily battles every family has with things like sleep and potty training, all while making decisions to improve climate conditions, teaching our children resiliency and sustainability, and reducing our carbon footprint. As I fight for strong federal policies for climate change, here are three things I make sure we do in our house to make an impact.

1. Teach children about the environment early.

When my bonus baby (my stepdaughter) was about 6, she said that we really needed a recycling container. Since we didn’t have city pick-up at the time, she found a cardboard box and decorated her own. We used it until the bottom was torn and the sides no longer lifted. Today she’s 13 and we have containers and recycle regularly. And when our son came along, she began showing him where to put the recyclables. Teach children early and they will not only maintain the lesson, they’ll show each other. 

2. Eliminate or reduce single-use plastics.

If you’re like us, you’ve got that “junk drawer” in the kitchen. You know the one in a corner where you stuff a bunch of things into and then completely forget about them. Here’s a tip: clean out the drawer of all the jelly packets, honey mustard sauces, straws, and sporks. Get rid of the plastic toys that you hid from the kids. Use the “good” dishes instead of plastics and Styrofoam plates. These few steps will go a long way to reduce the amount of plastics that end up in our landfills. 

3. Play in the dirt. 

Listen, if kids can figure out how to use your contact lens fluid and good dishware for slime, they can surely plant a flower or a vegetable. Find a small space and let them plant something, preferably something edible. Growing food and herbs is a great way to teach sustainability and even save a few dollars at the grocery store. 

Heather McTeer Toney (@HeatherMcTeer) served as the first African-American, first female, and youngest mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, and as regional administrator for region 4 of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration. She is the national field director of Moms Clean Air Force, wife to Dexter, and mom to Devin (3), Deriah (13), and Dexter (23). She loves bacon and triathlons and trains by chasing her 3-year-old. 

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