The childcare crisis is hurting the planet

The mom behind a viral tweet about pandemic parenting says our inability to prioritize child care is harming the climate movement.

Last week, I announced that HEATED will soon be launching a 10-week partnership with All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. It’s an anthology of essays and poems written by the climate movement’s female leaders, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson. (Have you gotten your copy yet? Time is running out! Get one!).

You might remember these women from previous newsletters. Back in January, I interviewed Wilkinson for an article about how the climate crisis is changing dating. And in June, amid nationwide protests over systemic racism and police brutality, Johnson shared how her experiences with racism negatively affects her work to preserve a livable planet.

Readers often ask me about this newsletter’s focus on intersectionality. This is a climate change publication, so why not focus strictly on climate? Why write about seemingly separate issues, like dating and racism? The answer, of course, is that these issues are not separate. The wounds we’ve cut into our planet bleed into every single thing we do, like dating. And our collective inability to address society’s other wounds, like racism, harm our ability to bandage and heal.

The reason climate change is so often dismissed as a “niche” or “single” issue is because journalists and activists aren’t effectively communicating these intersections. They’re getting much better, to be sure, but there’s still a long way to go.

So that’s why this newsletter often focuses on traditionally “non-climate” issues—to bring passionate people together under a bigger, more diverse, more powerful tent. It’s also why today’s issue focuses on the ongoing childcare crisis, and how our inability to prioritize working parents during the pandemic is harming the climate movement.

What follows is a Q&A with Gretchen Goldman, the research director at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Goldman is also a scientist and a mother of two, and recently went viral for tweeting about the reality of her working situation during the pandemic.

Goldman’s relatable struggle to balance work and parenthood has been covered by pretty much everyone, from NPR to Buzzfeed to Slate to Good Morning America to The Today Show. But few outlets, if any, have focused on the actual work Goldman is struggling to do: making sure the government can effectively fight climate change.

I spoke with Goldman last week about the intersections between the childcare crisis and the climate crisis, and what people can do to help address both. Our interview, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

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Emily Atkin: So tell me what happened last week. Tell us the story of your viral tweet.

Gretchen Goldman: Sure. News broke that a climate denier had been appointed to a leadership position at NOAA, and I got asked to go on CNN to react. I had 45 minutes to prep for it—both the content, and my appearance—so I quickly tried to figure out a CNN-worthy background in my house.

I put a chair at a coffee table, and cleaned up the background a bit so I would at least have a shot of getting a decent Room Rater score. The CNN shot looked good, but while I was doing the interview, my husband took a photo of me from afar, showing this whole mess of toys all around me.

Afterward, it looked so silly to compare the two shots. But this is the reality of the situation that I'm working in, and that many parents are working in. I wanted to be honest about that reality, because a lot of people would look at the scene and I assume that I had it all together, which is clearly not true. So I posted the photos. I did not anticipate they would get that kind of attention.

EA: Even for a viral tweet, this one went pretty viral. [Note: it now has more than 40,000 retweets as of this article’s publication]. What happened afterward?

GG: A whole slew of articles were written, and a bunch of people wanted to talk to me about it. It wasn't just limited to the United States either. Outlets in Europe and Australia wanted to talk about it, too.

They mostly wanted to talk about the nightmare that we’re all in as parents, juggling childcare and work. My kids are younger—two and four—and those are very needy ages. I can't just throw a computer in front of them and expect them to be entertained. Time is such a premium in this new world, where we don't get relief from childcare and work responsibilities. And so cleaning up toys is the lowest of priorities.

EA: It’s easy to see why news outlets would want to focus on the struggle to balance childcare and work. It’s relatable for so many parents right now. But I noticed that most of the articles didn’t discuss the actual work you’re struggling to do, which is climate-related. Why were you on CNN that day?

GG: A climate denier had been appointed to leadership at [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. His name is David Legates. He’s someone who has spent his time spreading misinformation about climate science, and he receives funding from the fossil fuel industry. So he is not the person that should be leading the federal agency in charge of weather and climate information.

I am very concerned with what this will mean for NOAA’s ability to conduct and communicate climate science. Especially given what we know about scientific integrity, and what it does to have an anti-science leader.

We know from our surveys of scientists at EPA and the Department of Interior that when you have climate deniers at the top of the agency, it leads to self-censorship. People at the agency start policing their own communication on climate because of the culture of fear that it creates. And there's no reason to think that these people aren’t being put the top to do that kind of crackdown on climate science, because they don't otherwise have qualifications.

EA: Is this the kind of work you do on a daily basis?

GG: Yes. I look at how science is used and misused across the federal government, analyze trends, and anticipate what the impacts will be of the current leadership.

EA: And what’s the workload like right now?

GG: We’re slammed. Every day, we’re hit with another example of science being sidelined. Things that years ago might have been a full-court press are now barely a blip on the map. Things that would have been a really big deal in another time are now just, “add it to the list,” because we just don’t have the ability to devote so much capacity to individual issues. We’re just drowning in cases to react to.


RELATED READING: The coronavirus pandemic child care crisis, in 11 numbers.


EA: It occurred to me when I saw your tweet that the lack of prioritization of working parents during the pandemic might be affecting your work to ensure scientific integrity in government, which is particularly important for effectively addressing climate change. Would you agree with that?

GG: Yes, absolutely. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to work from home safely with your children. But a lot of people who are government watchdogs, and a lot of the people who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting on climate science and climate advocacy, are women and people of color. These are the same people who are also disproportionately caregivers. So the burden of caring for children or elderly people disproportionately falls to people doing climate work.

So I think how we handle childcare during the pandemic will absolutely affect the work of how we’re able to tackle climate change, and I think we’re going to see that in a lot of ways. A lot of people are going to drop out of the workforce. A lot of people are probably going to burn out, or be less effective. Within the government, there's going to be a lot of capacity losses too, because people are not being supported.

I think if we don’t address childcare, we're at risk of losing a lot of the gains we've made, particularly when it comes to the diversity of voices and perspectives that have been really elevated in recent years in the climate movement. Climate change is a big, complex problem and we need a lot of really smart people working on it from different perspectives.

EA: What would you like to see from the climate movement going forward? How can people who care about climate change help working parents like you be able to do their jobs more effectively?

GG: At a minimum, just acknowledge it. For many months, I was mad that it wasn't even a conversation. A significant part of the workforce had their entire support system ripped from under them, and we barely mentioned it. Even in the national conversation about coronavirus stimulus packages on the Hill, it wasn't even a main issue being discussed.

I think in the immediate term, employers should be flexible. I’m on the board of 500 Women Scientists, and through them, I lead this SciMoms campaign that we do. We wrote a whole set of recommendations for employers to help women scientists during this time. The burden shouldn't be on parents to solve this problem, but in world where we aren’t being prioritized, we wanted to at least give people the ability to do that.

At the bigger level, there are groups that are are thinking about this issue and prioritizing it. Moms Rising has a whole campaign where they are talking about the child care crisis generally, and what Congress should be doing about it. So I think it would be helpful if the climate movement took on the childcare fight as being part of the broader needs of the movement. We need everyone, and if a significant part of the movement is hampered, it’s going to limit its effectiveness.

EA: I know you’re busy (obviously) and probably have to run; but could you tell me briefly what else you’re working at UCS on right now as you balance your kids’ needs with the planet’s?

GG: We are developing solutions to a lot of the scientific integrity challenges that we have observed in the past four years. We’re trying to think about how we strengthen the use of science in the federal government, and what protections we can put in place to prevent a lot of the attacks on science that we've been seeing in the future. We’re really trying to be forward thinking about what we do about this, in addition to continuing to track all of the problems that we see, and helping to demonstrate the harm caused by these anti-science actions.

EA: Oh, so not that much to do, really.

GG: Yeah, for sure. I just pencil it all in.

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