What Schools Can Do to Cope With Climate Change (Hint: More Than You Think)

It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to recognize that climate change exists, that humans are causing it, and that a massive restructuring of society is needed to reverse its most devastating effects.

The most tempting response might be to put off responsibilities, or just hope for a miracle. But leading experts on climate change warn that inaction will hurt humanity and the planet that sustains it. The consequences of planetary warming are already affecting school communities, as bad weather disrupts study time and teens report increasing levels of climate anxiety.

What can school and district principals do? A lot, it turns out.

Schools have a big role to play in reducing emissions of harmful greenhouse gases that cause excess carbon dioxide. National schools annually emit as much carbon as 18 coal-fired power plants or 8 million homes, according to an analysis from US Department of Energy data by the advocacy group Generation180. They also waste 530,000 tonnes of food per year, reports the World Wildlife Fund. And nearly 95 percent of school buses run on diesel fuel, which environmental damage is well documented.

Schools can take action now that will help keep students, staff and school buildings safe when bad weather triggered by climate change hits. They can empower future generations to pay attention to the world around them and champion a more conscientious approach to life on earth.

Schools don’t have to do all this alone. But they need motivation and support. With the help of more than a dozen experts on school building facilities, climate change impacts, and student advocacy, Education Week has identified some of the key barriers to action, and ideas for overcoming them.

The task ahead is huge, and the school is already busy

Educating America’s diverse population of 50 million K-12 students amid a deadly pandemic, political storm, budget shortfalls, labor shortages, and staff burnout is quite a task. Many school leaders simply feel they don’t have time to take new initiatives, especially scary ones.

Experts recommend: Start small. Districts do not have to address every impact of climate change at once. However, think of these efforts as complementing, rather than adding to, what the district is already doing to help students and staff.

Replacing or building infrastructure requires a large investment

The median age of US school buildings is 44 years, according to federal data. Many more are decades older, with some a century old. Renovating it takes years and a big investment.

The federal government and about a dozen states—including Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Tennessee—barely donate funds for school building improvements., leave local districts to raise property taxes, get grants, or cut programs and staff to free up funds. Cash-strapped areas struggling to fund basic needs lack the staff capacity to research benefits and raise money for new facilities and large curriculum projects.

Slightly more than a third of the 960 teachers, district heads and principals who answered the EdWeek Research Center’s nationally representative survey in February said more money would be needed to improve the ability of schools to deal with the impacts of climate change.

Experts recommend: Funding and resources are out there, though not always visible. Look at organizations like the Sierra ClubNational Environmental Education FoundationSolution ProjectRide the ClimateShumaker Family FoundationCollaboration for Schools of AchievementTrust for Public LandKresge Foundationand Whole Children Foundation.

Some states, such as MarylandNew Jerseyand Pennsylvania, offers grants for school construction. California State Division of Architectsa state government office, helping school districts upgrade their buildings with the goal of sustainability and reducing energy emissions.

This database includes hundreds of clean energy incentives that schools can take advantage of. Click “apply filter” in the top right, then select “Eligible Sector”, “Non-Residential”, “Public Sector”, and “Schools”.

Don’t rule out the federal government either. Check out this Aspen Institute guide for climate-related funding opportunities for schools in the infrastructure investment law Congress passed last year. One thing to note: The US Environmental Protection Agency will start accepting applications soon for a $5 billion discount to replace diesel school buses with electric equivalents.

Doing great things takes time

New school facilities take years to go from design to construction, and construction teams often have to work around the school year to avoid transferring students and staff. Districts that rush into the process run the risk of hiring contractors who don’t meet their specifications, or violate strict rules for building new schools.

Experts recommend: If you can’t make big changes happen overnight, make a plan about what you will do to improve energy efficiency when a major system eventually breaks down or needs to be replaced. This toolkit is from the New Buildings Institute can be very helpful.

Also, don’t overthink or overestimate how much work it takes to get started. A new composting program, community park, or classroom field trip to a local nature reserve or waste facility can be a low starting point for creating a culture of open discussion about climate change.

Some people and regions are still not convinced

In many swaths of the country, discussing climate change in public remains taboo and highly politicized. Nearly 140 members of Congress today publicly doubt the existence of climate change or the role of humans in it, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress..

April 2020 Survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 90 percent of Democrats, but only 31 percent of Republicans, believe climate change is a major global threat. Similarly, 45 percent of conservative Republicans in 2019 believed humans contributed to climate change “not very much” or “not at all,” according to Pew.. Only 20 percent of all American adults say the same.

Lawmakers in several states in recent years have tried to remove the term “climate change” from state standards for science education. In state-by-state reviews by 2020 state standard K-12, six states—Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—are earning F grades from the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund for their participation in climate change. . The other eleven states scored C’s or worse.

Even the most well-intentioned district leaders struggle to garner public support for significant climate mitigation efforts.

Experts recommend: Emphasize other reasons why the investment makes sense. Electric school buses smell better than diesel buses; saving energy means reducing long-term costs; teaching students about climate and how to conserve energy and resources can help bring them closer to nature.

If it’s invisible, it doesn’t feel urgent

In many parts of the country, climate change doesn’t show its face every day. Even when climate change affects weather patterns or causes more storms, floods, or wildfires, it’s not always easy for people to make connections between what they see in front of them and the more abstract forces driving it.

Experts recommend: Share examples from around the country where climate change is a real threat. Listen to students leading the call for change in society nationally.

Trying to improve means admitting flaws

Some district leaders may be reluctant to highlight the plight of their school building infrastructure for fear of alienating the communities they serve or painting an unattractive picture for families considering enrolling their child in the district.

Experts recommend: Assume parents are smart enough to recognize the structural factors that prevent school districts from spending as much as leaders want. Think long term about the benefits of gathering political will to make improvements that will last for generations. Don’t forget students and staff already know what’s going on in their school building.

If you don’t know, you can’t act

Many districts, especially smaller ones, do not have a designated person responsible for researching grant opportunities and tracking the latest research on useful sustainability initiatives.

Experts recommend: Now couldn’t be a better time to have someone in that role. Energy efficiency used to be very expensive and confusing, but in many cases, that is no longer true. Portland Public School in Oregon, for example, hires a climate justice program manager to incorporate climate change issues into the curriculum and work with students on climate-related advocacy. Other districts, such as Salt Lake City, have hired sustainability managers to help bring together different corners of the school district in the fight for clean energy and climate awareness.

About This Series

This article is the second in the ongoing Education Week series on how climate change and schools intersect. We aim to explain how schools contribute to climate change; highlighting the challenges facing the district in dealing with the impacts of climate change; and offers a solution to the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that often accompany this subject. If you have related story ideas for us, please email mwill@educationweek.org.

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