Illustrations: Brian Stauffer
My Climate Moment
How paralyzing sadness over the state of the environment turned to a new education focus
Three days have fundamentally altered my identity:
February 28, 2013, the day my oldest daughter was born, and I was forever a different person as a mother.
July 21, 2013, the day we lost my 27-year-old brother-in-law to an opioid overdose, and I was changed by the all-encompassing nature of grief.
And October 8, 2018, when the United Nations IPCC report on 1.5 degrees warming was released and headlines from all the major media outlets declared we only had a decade to address climate change.
I recall sitting in my basement that October, looking at my three children feeling paralyzed. I always believed in climate change, but I thought it was not an immediate problem. I worked in education policy where there are many pressing problems. But on that day, the full weight of motherhood and grief converged. My previous work felt meaningless. Would it matter if we had a great education system if the full destruction of climate change took hold? How could I look my children in the eye knowing the world they would inherit? This was my “climate moment.”
I looked into switching jobs, researching environmental organizations, but I was not sure where to go and what to do. In the spring of 2019, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, in his presidential campaign, said he would call on every sector to address climate change. And I realized I did not have to enter a new field, but rather I could bring my expertise in education to the climate fight.
From my experience in education policy, I knew the education sector had not yet talked about its role in addressing climate change at a systems level, across school districts and at the state and federal level. And on the environment side, in conversations about advancing climate policy, education is often left out as a solution. This isn't surprising. Prior to my climate moment, I also felt this tension; there are already many pressing problems within each sector, it's hard to step outside your focus to look at issues that cross sectors.
After recognizing this gap, I immersed myself in learning about the issues. I spoke with everyone and anyone I knew and became introduced to new people along the way. I attended a Climate Reality Project training where I met many other people grappling with their own “climate moments” and searching for how they could make a difference. I met incredible people working at this intersection and learned about great work being done in pockets across the country that had the opportunity to scale.
I eventually connected with the Aspen Institute — the nearly 75-year-old organization committed to addressing our greatest societal challenges through dialogue, leadership, and action — to launch K12 Climate Action, an initiative to unlock the power of the education sector to be a force for climate action, climate solutions, and environmental justice. John King Jr., former U.S. secretary of education, and Christine Todd Whitman, a former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and New Jersey governor, recognized the critical opportunity to leverage the education sector in the climate fight and agreed to co-chair the initiative. We worked with Whitman and King to recruit 20 additional education, environment, civil rights, and youth climate leaders to join a commission to develop an action plan.
Ultimately, this bipartisan commission agreed about the critically urgent need to engage the education sector in the climate fight.
As outlined in the IPCC report, if we have any hope of preventing the most damaging impacts of climate change, the whole world must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Including schools. Here in the United States, schools are a large public sector that must be a part of that decarbonization — meaning they need to reduce emissions from their energy, transportation, food use, and more. For example, to meet the needs of students across the country, schools are among the largest consumers of energy in the public sector; they operate the largest mass-transit fleet in the country with about 480,000 mostly diesel school buses; and they serve more than 7 billion meals annually — all contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
Schools across the country are also already experiencing climate impacts which will only continue to increase in the future. After Hurricane Maria, in addition to experiencing trauma and loss, students in Puerto Rico missed an average 78 school days. Just in the beginning of the 2021–2022 school year, 1 million students faced learning disruptions from wildfires, smoke, flooding, and hot days. As we have seen with COVID, these disruptions disproportionately fall on communities of color and low-income rural and urban communities. Yet, if the sector plans for potential climate impacts, it can emerge from this pandemic more resilient to the challenges ahead.
Our schools also present a very powerful opportunity. As places of learning, they can build our societal capacity to tackle climate change. Whether solar installers, business leaders, engineers, fashion designers, or farmers, the jobs in a clean economy will require an understanding of climate change, climate solutions, and sustainability. As of fall 2020, 29 states and the District of Columbia required teaching human-caused climate change in science classes, and five states recognized climate change in social studies standards. Twenty-nine states have career and technical education programs that prepare students for green careers. Yet, ensuring all students have the opportunity to engage in learning about climate change, solutions, and sustainability can prepare them for success in the clean economy and enable them to lead a more sustainable society.
From increased vulnerability to extreme weather to increased exposure to air pollution, climate change disproportionately impacts Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian American, and Pacific Islander, as well as other communities of color and low-income rural and urban areas. For instance, schools with higher concentrations of low-income students are more likely to experience “heat island” effects where the temperature at that their school is higher than their community — and the problem is getting worse. Meanwhile funding inequities often leave these schools without adequate infrastructure to keep buildings cool, and the increased exposure to hot days has been found to negatively impact learning, in particular for Black and Latino students.
Equity-focused investments like transitioning schoolyards from heat-trapping asphalt to green sustainable spaces can help reduce heat island effects and community flooding and increase access to safe outdoor spaces to learn and play. At this moment of societal transition to address climate change, we have an opportunity to acknowledge the disparities that exist and advance equity-focused action to ensure the communities most impacted by climate change and education inequities are centered and prioritized.
The K12 Climate Action Commission spent a year listening to students, educators, parents, and school leaders from across the country. They heard from students in Salt Lake City who pushed their school board to pass a resolution committing the district to transition to 100% clean energy. They heard from educators in Oklahoma, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and the Spokane Tribe about different ways educators are supporting action, and they heard from superintendents from Miami-Dade, Philadelphia, and the Bayfield School District in Colorado about ways school leaders are taking action.
After a year of listening and learning, the commission released the K12 Climate Action Plan. The plan envisions a future where our nearly 100,000 schools are beacons of climate action: where our school buildings produce as much energy as they consume; where America’s 480,000 school buses are electric; our schools’ 2 million acres of land are green schoolyards; the 7 billion meals served in schools are sustainable; and importantly, the 50 million students in school are engaged in learning about climate change, climate solutions, and sustainability and are prepared for success in the clean economy.
At K12 Climate Action, we are now working with our 22 leaders and organizational partners to make our vision for schools a reality by advocating for the recommendations at the local, state, and federal level. For example, our commissioners are working to elevate the issue across the sector, speaking with the media and in conversations at events, including the Ed School’s Askwith Education Forum and SXSW EDU. And we are hearing from people in early childhood and higher education who are interested in advancing a similar conversation in their fields.
Upon the report release, we were able to tour Alice West Fleet Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, where we saw firsthand this vision in practice. Fleet is the largest net-zero energy school in the country. Planning elements, such as the angle of the building and the south facing tilt of the roof, help the school generate enough energy from renewable sources, including 1,532 solar panels to cover the school’s energy needs. In fact, a power tower in the center of the school shows students in real-time the amount of energy the school produces compared to the amount it consumes, and students are able to observe differences in the power tower when the whole school goes lights out or it is a cloudy day. The school is modeled after the Earth, where students begin their education in the ocean and end at the poles. The whole-of-school approach to sustainability is reflected in the principal’s leadership, the teaching and learning in the classroom, and the built environment. Importantly, when asked if a building like this costs more, an Arlington director noted it doesn’t cost more if you are smart about how you do it, plus, the learning opportunities it creates are invaluable.
I know I am not the first person to have a climate moment, and I’ve encountered many others working tirelessly on these issues on my climate path — people on the commission, those who presented to the commission, and those whom I had the opportunity to meet as I was immersing myself in the issues. Naina Agrawal-Hardin, who drew on her relationships to organize the U.S. Youth Climate Strike; Ari Bernstein, who applies his knowledge as a pediatrician to elevate how climate change will impact children’s health; Gil Rosas, who uses his position in operations to get Stockton (California) Unified School District electric buses; First Lady of New Jersey Tammy Murphy, who pushed the state to establish climate change standards across the curriculum; and Wyck Knox, who applied his architectural skills to design Alice West Fleet Elementary; to name a few. These people all recognize the urgency of climate change and the opportunity to use their knowledge, passions, and positions to advance solutions.
I still walk around anxious about the reality we all face with the climate crisis, and I still get asked by those in education, how can we possibly think about this now when we are grappling with the many education problems posed by COVID? But I remain hopeful as I collaboratively contribute to solutions and realize the potential of our collective action. As more people experience the grief of their own climate awakenings, they can look to bring their passions, interests, and expertise to make a difference. To meet this moment, we need everyone’s unique contribution to the collective fight. As others embark on their own climate paths, I hope they live by the motto of Alice West Fleet: “Let nothing and no one stop you.”
Laura Schifter, Ed.M.’07, Ed.D.’14, is a lecturer on education at the Ed School and a senior fellow with the Aspen Institute leading the K12 Climate Action initiative