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Last month, schools across the country celebrated Earth Day, many bringing children and families together to clean parks and plant trees.
That’s excellent, but it’s time to talk about the other 364 days of the year.
We’re not minimizing what happened on that one day. Trees are desperately needed on our hot, blacktop-covered school playgrounds, and parks that welcome children and families matter deeply. But in the face of the rapidly accelerating climate disaster that is already affecting the lives of our students, what happens on one day isn’t enough.
Not when there’s so much more our schools can do to slow and adapt to climate change.
Schools play an enormous, if often overlooked, role in the climate crisis. They are the nation’s second-largest form of public infrastructure, to which we devote $114 billion each year. Schools are also one of the largest public-sector energy consumers, and their nearly half-million diesel buses represent the largest public transit fleet.
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Thanks to the federal American Rescue Plan, we face a singular opportunity to pivot toward a cleaner future.
For example, there is enormous funding available for schools to upgrade their HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems, in part because improving ventilation can reduce Covid transmission. Indeed, a recent report shows that HVAC systems are slated to be the single largest category of planned spending.
What that report doesn’t tell us is whether schools will invest those funds to break with the past, through such technologies as electric heat pumps, or simply install new fossil fuel furnaces, boilers and more.
The implications are huge. America has committed to achieving “net zero” emissions — removing as much greenhouse gas from the atmosphere as it produces — by 2050. It’s hard to see a path to net-zero without big changes in our schools. A new, fossil gas-burning boiler installed today will be adding carbon to the atmosphere beyond 2050. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has called investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure “moral and economic madness.”
Evidence suggests that schools that opt for fossil fuel-based systems are likely to spend 20-25 percent more over 30 years. So, counter to what some may assume, the climate-friendly choice may also be the budget-friendly choice.
But it’s not just the federal rescue funds and ambitious goals that make this such a crucial moment. With petroleum now a tool of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and gas prices spiraling upward as a consequence, abandoning fossil fuels isn’t just good economics, it’s a declaration of independence and solidarity.
Smarter HVAC systems are the leading edge of a set of changes that will help our students — especially in communities of color. Extreme heat alone accounts for an estimated 5 percent of the racial achievement gap; students of color disproportionately attend schools without air conditioning.
Related: OPINION: Jump in, the water is rising — it’s time to educate students for a sustainable future
As wildfires, smoke, storms and floods become more common and severe, a federal report has found that the majority of school districts that experienced disasters between 2017 and 2019 were disproportionately attended by students of color, students from low-income families, English learners and students living with disabilities. The GAO reports that a whopping two-thirds of all students attend schools in areas that experienced a presidentially declared natural disaster between 2017 and 2019.
The GAO also found that our school buildings are unprepared for climate change. Investing now in climate-resilient schools can help them survive and stay open — and lessen their contribution to the future worsening of storms and fires.
Many forward-looking districts are paving the way. Berkeley County in West Virginia renovated a set of schools to use geothermal energy, entirely paying for the project with the $1.7 million it will save in energy costs each year. Salt Lake City adopted a climate action plan that commits to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2040, with electric buses and solar panels replacing fossil fuel driven technology — an ambitious agenda driven by student activism. And in Portland, Oregon, the school district has prohibited the burning of fossil fuels in new construction.
Our big bureaucracies can and must catch up. We have yet to see the U.S. Department of Education or any state education agencies make clear to the school boards and superintendents that are guiding these generational infrastructure investments the stark ramifications of their decisions. On the contrary, the Department of Education’s video celebrating the American Rescue Plan actually highlighted the investment of a school district in a fossil gas boiler.
Here’s what leaders can do now:
- Members of Congress should approve the U.S. Department of Education’s budget request to fund a first-of-its-kind Office of Infrastructure and Sustainability.
- The U.S. Department of Education should immediately update its May 2021 guidance to recommend that states and districts pursue fossil-free HVAC options.
- States overseeing American Rescue Plan funds should do the same, and provide technical assistance to help district leaders avoid locking in greenhouse gas emissions for 30-plus years.
- Districts should ensure that all facilities investments are consistent with a pathway to zero emissions. In order to accomplish this, schools can consult New Buildings Institute’s just-released Decarbonization Roadmap Guide for School Building Decision Makers. And for further guidance, our organization recently launched a new Climate Solutions Center, including the White House Toolkit: Federal Resources for Addressing School Infrastructure Needs and The Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action Plan, a must-read resource for education and climate leaders.
All of these efforts stand the best chance for success if we support them in our communities — all year round. Bringing consistent attention will do more than just improve school buildings — it will engage students and families in tangible solutions to climate change, one of the issues young people care about most.
Earth Day 2022 is over. It’s on us to keep going.
Jonathan Klein and Sara Ross are co-founders of UndauntedK12, a nonprofit supporting schools on their journey to zero carbon emissions.
This story about schools and climate change was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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