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

It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to admit that climate change exists, that humans are causing it, and that it will take massive societal realignment to reverse its most devastating effects.

The most tempting response might be to defer responsibility, or simply hope for a miracle. But leading experts on climate change warn that inaction will take a severe toll on humanity and the planet that sustains it. Consequences of a warming planet are already affecting school communities, as severe weather disrupts learning time and teenagers report growing levels of climate anxiety.

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

Schools have a big role to play in reducing emissions of harmful greenhouse gases that cause an overload of carbon dioxide. The nation’s schools annually emit as much carbon as 18 coal plants or 8 million homes, according to an analysis of US Department of Energy data by the advocacy group Generation180. They also waste 530,000 tons of food a year, the World Wildlife Fund reports. And nearly 95 percent of school buses run on diesel fuel, whose environmental harms are well-documented.

Schools can take actions now that will help keep students, staff, and school buildings safe when severe weather powered by climate change comes knocking. They can empower future generations to pay attention to the world around them and fight for a more conscious approach to living on earth.

Schools don’t have to do any of these things alone. But they do 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 those barriers.

The task ahead is huge, and schools are already busy

Educating America’s diverse population of 50 million K-12 students amid a deadly pandemic, political firestorms, budget shortfalls, labor shortages, and staff fatigue is a difficult enough task. Many school leaders simply feel they don’t have the bandwidth to take on new initiatives, especially such a daunting one.

Experts recommend: Start small. Districts don’t have to tackle every effect of climate change at once. But 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 big investments

The average age of US school buildings is 44 years old, according to federal data. Many more are decades older, with some stretching back a century. Renovating them takes years and big investments.

The federal government and roughly a dozen states—including Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Tennessee—contribute virtually no funds to school building improvements, leaving local districts to either raise property taxes, secure grants, or cut programs and staff to free up funds. Cash-strapped districts that struggle to fund the basics don’t have the staff capacity to research the benefits and find money for big new facilities and curriculum projects.

Slightly more than a third of the 960 teachers, district leaders, and principals who answered a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey in February said more money would be necessary to improve schools’ ability to confront the effects of climate change.

Experts recommend: Funding and resources are out there, even if it’s not always apparent. Look to organizations like the Sierra Clubthe National Environmental Education Foundationthe Solutions ProjectClimate Ridethe Shumaker Family Foundationthe Collaborative for High Performance Schoolsthe Trust for Public Landthe Kresge Foundationand the Whole Kids Foundation.

Some states, like MarylandNJand Pennsylvania, offer grants for school construction. California’s Division of the State Architecta state government office, helps school districts upgrade their buildings with goals of sustainability and reducing energy emissions.

This database includes hundreds of clean energy incentives that schools can tap. Click “apply filters” on the top right, then select “Eligible Sectors,” “Non-Residential,” “Public Sector,” and “Schools.”

Don’t rule out the federal government either. Check out this Aspen Institute guide to climate-related funding opportunities for schools in the infrastructure investment law Congress passed last year. One to keep an eye on: The US Environmental Protection Agency will soon start taking applications for $5 billion in rebates for replacing diesel school buses with electric equivalents.

Doing big 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 displacing students and staff. Districts that rush the process risk hiring contractors who won’t meet their specifications, or running afoul of strict regulations for new school construction.

Experts recommend: If you can’t make a big change happen overnight, have a plan for what you’ll do to improve energy efficiency when key systems eventually break down or need to be replaced. This toolkit from the New Buildings Institute could be a big help.

So, don’t overthink or overestimate how much work it will take to get started. A new composting program, a community garden, or a class field trip to a local nature preserve or waste facility can be low-lift starting points toward creating a culture of open discussion about climate change.

Some people and localities still aren’t convinced

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

An 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 are contributing to climate change “not too much” or “not at all,” according to Pew. Only 20 percent of all American adults said the same thing.

Lawmakers in several states in recent years have tried to strike the term “climate change” from state standards for science education. In a state-by-state review of K-12 state standards in 2020, six states—Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—earned an F from the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund for their inclusion of climate change. Eleven more states earned a C or worse.

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

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

If it’s not visible, it doesn’t feel urgent

In many parts of the country, climate change isn’t showing its face on a daily basis. Even where climate change is affecting weather patterns or causing more frequent hurricanes, flooding, or wildfires, it’s not always easy for people to make the connection 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 tangible threat. Listen to students who are leading calls for change in communities nationwide.

Trying to improve means acknowledging shortcomings

Some district leaders might be reluctant to highlight the poor state of their school building infrastructure for fear of alienating the communities they serve or painting a less-than-appealing picture for families who are considering enrolling their child in the district.

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

If you don’t know, you can’t act

Many districts, particularly smaller ones, don’t have a designated person in charge of perusing grant opportunities and tracking of the latest research on worthwhile sustainability initiatives.

Experts recommend: Now couldn’t be a better time to have someone in that role. Energy efficiency used to be prohibitively expensive and confusing, but in many cases, that’s no longer true. Portland Public Schools in Oregon, for instance, employs a climate justice programs manager to infuse climate change issues into the curriculum and work with students on climate-related advocacy. Other districts, like Salt Lake City, have hired sustainability managers to help unite disparate corners of the school district in striving for clean energy and climate consciousness.

About This Series

This article is the second in an ongoing Education Week series about how climate change and schools intersect. We aim to illuminate how schools contribute to climate change; highlight challenges districts face in dealing with the effects of climate change; and offer solutions to the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that often accompany this subject. If you have a related story idea for us, please email mwill@educationweek.org.

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