Why Schools Need To Take The Climate Crisis Seriously

Learn how school district leaders drive meaningful change to thwart the devastating effects of climate change.

The climate crisis is real, and it will take a drastic change in our societal behavior to reduce the devastating effects. The leading experts and scientists warn that inaction will lead to severe consequences for humanity.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (made up of 195 countries) recently warned in an official report, it’s “now or never” to take action on climate change and reduce humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Addressing the environmental impact of schools will be crucial in managing this crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, schools in the US emit approximately 72 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That is the equivalent of 18 coal plants or over 8 million homes.

However, the response of many policymakers has been to ignore the problem, defer responsibility or perhaps hope for a miracle. After all, the situation can feel overwhelming, and hopeless, with greater priorities on hand.

However, if we can face the problem and take action, school district leaders can make more of an impact than they might think.

What Does the EdWeek Research Survey Tell Us About School Reactions to the Climate Crisis?

According to a national EdWeek Research Center survey of 960 educators, only 30% of district leaders and principals said they currently have a facilities plan that takes climate change into account.

Out of all the district leaders and principals who answered the survey, only 4% said that they had set targets for reducing their district’s carbon footprint.

8% of survey respondents said they do not believe climate change is real. (While this is a lower percentage than the 14% of the general American population who believe that climate change is not real, it is still concerning.)

Yet another 15% of the survey respondents said that while they believe climate change is real, it won’t affect their school or district at any time in the foreseeable future.

Case Study: Chicago School District Takes Action

As an example of a school district moving in the right direction, let’s take a look at how the Chicago Public School District has used newly available government funding to cover initiatives to improve their indoor air quality, as well as achieve energy goals.

In 2020, the district took steps to address the environmental effects of climate change. They hired a Sustainability Coordinator and released a Climate Action Plan, which committed to converting to 100% renewable energy by 2025.

The Sustainability Coordinator, Sandrine Schultz, previously managed energy projects for the U.S. Navy and Department of Energy and she’s taking the challenge of reducing energy usage across the 700+ facilities in the district very seriously.

The district plans to apply later this year for funding from the Department of Energy, which they will use to modernize their buildings, eliminate mold, lead and asbestos and conduct other energy-efficiency and air quality-related retrofits.

Also, the Climate Justice Committee organized by the district’s union is pushing for the district’s teacher pension program to move away from investing with fossil fuel companies.

Other school districts in other large U.S. cities have also invested in their sustainability efforts. Some major cities, such as San Francisco and New York, have more than a dozen staff members tasked with solving sustainability challenges in their public schools. These are the steps that need to be taken now, to set ourselves up for success in the coming years.

Sandrine Schultz, a former Department of Energy official, is the sustainability director for Chicago Public Schools. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / Energy News Network

Achieving Net-Zero Carbon in Schools

Having a goal of net-zero carbon in school buildings is not only good for the environment but is also for school district spending. Following payroll, the operating costs of a school building are the most significant line-item expense for school districts.

A net-zero school building means spending less money on heating, cooling, and lighting costs, so more money will be left over for educational needs. And since heating and cooling are some of the heaviest uses of energy in a school building, increasing the top ventilation of the school’s HVAC system will help significantly.

The good news is that achieving a net-zero energy school with high indoor air quality is not a far-off dream. It’s attainable now with the technology we currently have, such as HVAC induct air purifiers, UV robot sanitization systems, and portable air purifiers.

In fact, it’s even possible that soon, schools will be built so efficiently that they will produce more energy than they need, which will not only benefit the planet but also improve the financial health of education.

Let’s Not Ignore The Future

One of the most difficult aspects of the response is balancing short-term knee-jerk reactions to urgent situations with a long-term strategy. Over the last couple of years, school administrators have had to make many adjustments to accommodate the COVID-19 crisis.

Not only have they had to deal with managing the virus, but they have also been occupied by gun violence, supporting student mental health, staffing shortages, budget shortfalls, political controversies, and much more. Even though school and district leaders understand the situation and believe in science, there is very limited bandwidth for thinking about the future impact of the climate crisis.

As Erika Kitzmiller, Assistant Professor of Education and Inequality at Barnard College, explains in this EdWeek article, “When you’re trying to decide, ‘should kids be wearing masks tomorrow?’ worrying about the ramifications of what’s going to happen in 20 years is harder to do.”

There is a danger that many years will pass, while climate change is put on the back burner in favor of other more immediate priorities. Let’s not let this opportunity slip away, especially when we have the ability to change things in a positive way with the technology that currently exists. While immediate concerns are certainly important, it’s also essential for schools to make a plan for the future.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you achieve your net-zero energy goals while improving the quality of your indoor air, we have the solutions to help.  

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