Composite image of school building and climate change protestors.
School & District Management

‘It Has to Be a Priority': Why Schools Can’t Ignore the Climate Crisis

By Mark Lieberman — May 18, 2022 16 min read
School & District Management

‘It Has to Be a Priority': Why Schools Can’t Ignore the Climate Crisis

By Mark Lieberman — May 18, 2022 16 min read
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Fifteen years ago, Greg Libecci quit his career in sales at Fortune 500 companies to do something good for the planet: make public schools more sustainable. Since 2010, he’s been the energy and resource manager for the Salt Lake City district, tasked with minimizing the district’s use of energy and natural gas.

Progress has been slow going.

Libecci initially focused on what he calls “low-hanging fruit"—encouraging staff to turn off lights more often and shutting down HVAC systems during holidays and weekends. When he wanted to make bigger changes, such as replacing HVAC systems or converting fluorescent lights to LED bulbs, administrators told him it would be too expensive, or that it wasn’t the highest priority.

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Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox hold a sign together and chant while participating in a "Global Climate Strike" at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Across the globe hundreds of thousands of young people took the streets Friday to demand that leaders tackle climate change in the run-up to a U.N. summit.
Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox participate in a Global Climate Strike at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., in September 2019.
Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record via AP

That all changed in early 2020. High school students in environmental clubs started asking him, Why aren’t you doing more to minimize the district’s carbon footprint? After all, as advocates and policymakers are beginning to realize, schools across the country contribute a huge chunk of the harmful emissions that are driving climate change at an increasingly alarming rate.

“I was almost embarrassed,” Libecci said.

Armed with a toolkit from the nonprofit Sierra Club, students crafted a thoroughly researched presentation and arrived at the April 2020 school board meeting with a concrete request: Could the district commit to transitioning its 40-plus buildings to entirely clean energy by 2030? And eliminate fossil fuels for heating and transportation by 2040?

Two months later, the board unanimously voted yes. That gave Libecci the backing he’d never had before to work with colleagues and students on a plan of action.

The final draft of that plan, unveiled last year, culminated in a contract to reduce the 21,000-student district’s carbon emissions by 30 percent. The entire district will be outfitted with LED lights, six school buildings will get new solar panels, and two elementary school buildings will get new mechanical systems that run on electricity rather than fossil fuels.

The money saved by reducing the district’s energy consumption in the long-term will pay for the construction that makes those energy savings possible.

“I’ve been pushing the snowball uphill for long enough and only sliding backwards,” Libecci said. “To see it go from student to school board and then push back on me was Christmas in my world.”

His success story is both an inspiring lesson and a cautionary tale for advocates of school districts taking bolder action to confront the climate crisis. It’s possible for a school district to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing the planet to heat up, and commit to doing something about it now.

But it’s also possible for years to pass while climate change falls beneath school districts’ more immediate priorities—even when the people involved are well-intentioned and believe the science. School and district leaders have a lot on their plates already: COVID-19 mitigation, political controversies, staffing shortages, building maintenance, technology upkeep, enrollment fluctuations, unfunded state mandates, budget shortfalls, and above all, serving students’ increasingly wide-ranging and complex academic, emotional, and physical needs.

Among the nation’s 13,000 public school systems, strong commitments to address climate change are relatively few and far between. Only 30 percent of district leaders and principals who answered a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey said their districts have a facilities plan that takes climate change into account. Just four percent said they’ve set targets for reducing their district’s carbon footprints.

“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,” said Erika Kitzmiller, an assistant professor of education and inequality at Barnard College.

In many communities, simply convincing everyone of humans’ role in climate change is a hurdle that will be difficult to overcome. Roughly 14 percent of Americans don’t believe climate change is real, and 30 percent don’t believe humans are causing it, according to a 2021 summary of public opinion surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Fifteen percent of the 960 educators who answered the EdWeek Research Center survey said they believe climate change is real, but that it won’t affect their school or district anytime in the foreseeable future.

Another 8 percent said climate change is not real.

Catastrophic effects are just around the corner

School districts, and the communities they serve, don’t have the luxury of time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body made up of 195 countries, warned in its latest report last month that “it’s now or never” to slash greenhouse gas emissions and shrink humanity’s carbon footprint. Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit that analyzes global temperature changes, estimates the planet’s average temperature could increase by 1.5 degrees as early as 2033.

At that point, many devastating global impacts, from rampant wildfires and stronger hurricanes to food and water scarcity and more frequent pandemics, would be irreversible. Many of those consequences will directly bear down on the physical and mental health of students and teachers, in addition to disrupting learning time.

K-12 schools can’t fight this battle on their own, but they have a major role to play. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that schools annually spend $8 billion on energy, and emit an estimated 72 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—equivalent to the output of 18 coal plants, or more than 8 million homes, according to an analysis of agency data by the advocacy group Generation180.

Their emissions don’t stop there. A 2019 World Wildlife Fund study conducted with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found school districts waste 530,000 tons of food a year, accounting for nearly 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

According to the nonprofit Diesel Technology Forum, close to 95 percent of the nation’s 560,000 school buses run on diesel fuel, which the federal government says emits dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide and pollutes the air. Diesel fuel also can increase cancer risks, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

And schools play a unique role in helping shape attitudes about climate and the environment that the nation’s 50 million K-12 students carry with them the rest of their lives.

Despite that, the Green New Deal for Public Schools, a proposal from former high school principal and current U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York, to spend $1.4 trillion over 10 years to address climate change in public schools, appears unlikely to pass anytime soon.

“School districts are some of the largest landholders in most communities,” said Anisa Heming, director of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools. “It’s kind of baffling” that schools aren’t more central to discussions of mitigating climate change, she said.

School districts don’t have to wait to act

Interviews with school district leaders, experts on the intersection of climate change and school buildings, and student advocates reveal a few striking truths:

  • Lots of people within districts overestimate the cost and difficulty of starting to mitigate the effects of climate change or prepare for its impacts on students and staff.
  • Sometimes all it takes to move from passive to active is one or two people who feel strongly that tackling climate change should be a priority.
  • Addressing climate change should be an integral part of a school district’s mission, not an extra thing to add to a daunting to-do list.

“It should be the number one thing that everyone is talking about,” said Debra Duardo, who oversees 80 districts as superintendent of the Los Angeles County schools.

After the Aspen Institute asked her to serve on a national commission to address climate change in schools, Duardo started researching. She was astonished at how little she knew about schools’ contributions to climate change. She’s now made addressing climate change a centerpiece of her county leadership role, shepherding a comprehensive climate curriculum and helping develop a K-12 Climate Action Plan the Aspen Institute is using to support districts nationwide.

“People need to realize, as busy as we are, as challenging as it may be, it has to be a priority or we’re not going to be able to survive on this planet,” Duardo said.

Advocates like Heming say they’ve been heartened in recent years by an increasing number of schools that have incorporated clean energy initiatives into their strategic plans, developed robust climate change curricula to help students and staff grasp the stakes, and hired administrators, like Libecci in Salt Lake City, to oversee sustainability efforts full-time.

People need to realize, as busy as we are, as challenging as it may be, it has to be a priority or we’re not going to be able to survive on this planet.

Meanwhile, high-profile weather calamities—like wildfires that destroyed school buildings and shut down instruction in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Tennessee; rising sea levels that forced school building relocations in Alaska; and hurricanes that wrecked communities in Louisiana, New Jersey, and Texas—have made the tangible effects of climate change more difficult to ignore. More than 40 percent of Americans last year lived in a county that experienced climate-related extreme weather last year, and 80 percent felt a heat wave, the Washington Post reported.

The federal government and close to a dozen states don’t provide any recurring funds for school districts to upgrade their buildings. Perpetually understaffed and underresourced school districts in low-income and rural areas would have to raise taxes, seek grants, or sacrifice staff and programs to make bolder fiscal commitments to sustainability.

Even where commitments have passed and climate change plans have been commissioned, there’s a lot of work to be done—and money to be spent—before the commitments come to fruition.

Some activists believe districts need to move much faster

For champions of climate action, progress can feel exasperatingly slow.

Nick Limbeck, a 6th grade bilingual writing and social studies teacher in Chicago, helped spearhead his teachers’ union’s Climate Justice Committee after seeing a TV news report about the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. The Chicago Teachers Union, which has long had a contentious relationship with the district, is pushing administrators and city officials to take significant action on the climate crisis.

The effects of climate change are increasingly difficult to miss in Chicago, where temperatures rose above 90 degrees several times this month. Teachers and parents raised concerns about several school buildings that lacked working air conditioning during a recent heat wave, Block Club Chicago reported. A district spokesperson said leaders were aware of the issues and working to resolve them.

Educators have also pushed for more robust environmental science course options for students. And students at the district’s George Washington High School joined environmental activists in 2020 and 2021 to protest the planned installation of a scrap metal factory just blocks away from their school building in a primarily Black and Latinx neighborhood. Last May, the city halted the project’s permit after the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns about adding toxic emissions to an already-polluted area.

The Chicago district has taken steps to address the environmental effects of climate change. In 2020, it hired a sustainability coordinator, filling a five-year vacancy. And last year, the nation’s third-largest school district released a climate action plan that includes pledges to convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2025; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent by 2030 and entirely by 2050. Eleven of the district’s 600-plus schools got grants to install solar panels.

“CPS is open to collaborating with the Chicago Teachers Union on any formal demands related to our climate action plan,” said Sylvia Barragan, a spokesperson for the district, in an email. She also pointed to the district’s commitment to conduct energy audits at school buildings.

“Ultimately, the district’s mission is to conserve, protect, and sustain resources to provide healthy and high-performing facilities that meet or exceed energy efficiency standards while preparing students to advance in a more sustainable, resilient, reliable, and equitable environment,” Barragan wrote.

Limbeck and his colleagues aren’t satisfied.

We don’t need feel-good advertisements from the district. We need massive accelerated action.

“It’s kind of like the bus is leaving, and you’re walking slowly to the bus stop as the bus rolls away,” Limbeck said. “When this is a race against time, they’re treating it as a stroll in the park. It’s a good step in the right direction, but we need to accelerate this.”

The union’s Climate Justice Committee is pushing for the board of trustees that oversees the district’s teacher pension program to divest from fossil fuel companies; and for the district to begin work to address nearly $2 billion in backlogged facilities maintenance including abatement of mold, lead, and asbestos; and immediately begin modernizing and solarizing all its buildings.

“We don’t need feel-good advertisements from the district,” Limbeck said. “We need massive accelerated action.”

To pay for all of this, the committee is advocating for state and federal governments to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy and for the passage of the proposed federal Build Back Better Act and Green New Deal investment packages.

Still, the district is facing pressing challenges around meeting students’ academic and emotional needs, which were exacerbated during the pandemic and lengthy school closures. The 340,000-student district’s finite operating budget of $4 billion has to make room to address all of these challenges, and anticipate future ones as well.

Limbeck said the district should take advantage of emerging state and federal funding streams, like rebates for electric school buses, to get initiatives rolling.

The district plans to apply later this year for Department of Energy funding to improve indoor air quality and retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, Barragan said.

Sometimes, change starts with one person

Some school districts in recent years have ramped up efforts to address climate change by cutting down on emissions and updating curricula—or at least vowing to do so in the future.

School boards in Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Eau Claire, Wis., Green Bay, Wis., Lake Tahoe, Calif., Madison, Wis., Montgomery County, Md., Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Ore., have approved plans for their districts to strive to rely on 100 percent clean energy between 2030 and 2050. Several more districts, including in Iowa City, Iowa, and Sebastopol, Calif., have passed resolutions to develop a climate plan or form a committee. Hundreds of districts have started operating electric school buses as an alternative to diesel fuel. And more than half of states earned a B+ or better in a 2020 National Center for Science Education review of climate change in public school curricula.

Just this month, Michelle Wu, the Democratic mayor of Boston, unveiled a $2 billion Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools investment package with a goal of modernizing all 100-plus buildings in the district over the next decade. While introducing the plan, Wu said schools account for nearly half the city’s emissions.

Sometimes, one person in a school community who cares about climate change can spark others to take action.

Breck Foster, a social studies and Spanish teacher in Oregon’s Lake Oswego district, got interested in tackling climate change five years ago after hearing a talk by the activist and thinker Naomi Klein. Foster became frustrated that her district hadn’t made any commitments to reduce emissions or even established a green team or an environment club. Her social studies colleagues rarely talked about this subject, even among themselves.

Larry Zurcher, sustainability teacher on special assignment for the Lake Oswego School District, prepares students to audit their school building's food waste on Dec. 9, 2021.

So, Foster started a student green team, and implored her principal to think about ways to make the school more energy-efficient and to incorporate climate change into classroom discussions. Since then, she’s run a compost program, started a sustainability committee, and overseen the process to get her school building and others in the district certified as Oregon Green Schools. She’s also collaborating with educators across the state to lobby lawmakers to infuse climate change topics throughout the state’s K-12 curriculum.

Starting this year, her district has taken a more active approach to tackling climate change: making a sustainability commitment in its strategic plan, and hiring a staff member whose sole focus is to oversee sustainability efforts around curriculum and facilities.

That staff member is Larry Zurcher, who’s relishing his chance to help corral the district’s staff, students, and administrators toward common goals of reducing emissions and raising climate change awareness. He’s helping teachers recognize the connections between climate change and their curricula; setting up systems to track the district’s energy consumption; and pushing for nutrition staff to focus on reducing cafeteria waste.

“It’s not just putting lip service so this is something we can check off and say we did it on our report card,” said Zurcher, whose title is sustainability teacher on special assignment. “It’s one of our core values.”

Foster still hopes for more. If the passionate people in the district lose interest or move on, the work could easily fade, she said. The vast majority of staff members in the district don’t have sustainability as part of their job descriptions, and she’s done much of her climate change work as a volunteer, on top of her regular duties. Even so, plenty of other nearby districts are doing even less, she said.

She worked this year with Zurcher and other colleagues on a pitch to fund a paid, part-time school sustainability coordinator on her campus. They’re still awaiting the district’s verdict.

“Imagine if every school had these principles embedded in job descriptions and were funded,” Foster said. “What could we do?”

Students are ready for their schools to step up

Students are eager for the adults who determine their futures to begin this work—and sometimes they’re the ones driving it. Propelled in part by the school strike movement Thunberg kicked off in Sweden in 2018, K-12 students have catalyzed climate action by presenting at school boards, circulating petitions, organizing rallies, walking out of class, and even suing state officials.

In 2017, Emily Her was a senior at Timberline High School in Boise, Idaho, when her teacher gave a lecture that she couldn’t shake, about the urgency of addressing climate change and the possibility that Idaho state lawmakers would strike the term “anthropogenic climate change” from the state’s K-12 science standards. Her, who says she was shy and not particularly outspoken for most of her childhood, felt compelled to organize her peers and testify before the state legislature. The term stayed.

She’s since gone on to lobby for the district to mimic the city’s clean energy commitment, which it did. Her passion for climate activism continued at Boise State University, from which she graduated last year with a degree in global studies and sustainability.

Students work in the carbon sequestration garden at Borah High School in Boise, Idaho.

Alongside the work of students like Her, the Boise school district in the last few years has grown a formidable sustainability committee, which now includes 50 students. The committee’s projects include a new environmental field trip for 6th grade students, drought-tolerant grass on a playground, and a garden on a high school campus that uses native plants and natural fertilizer to capture more carbon than the average garden.

Sometimes the students want more than the district can deliver right away, said Chris Taylor, the district’s science and sustainability supervisor.

“It’s never going to get easier for a school district to start on some of these things,” he said.

His advice for districts who aren’t as far along? “Just start.”

Glossary

To better understand the conversations around climate change, browse the terms below.

  • 1.5 degrees: The increase in the global temperature compared with the pre-industrial period between 1850 and 1900. Scientists expect a 1.5 degree increase to coincide with a wide range of catastrophic natural disasters and irreversible damage. As of 2022, the earth currently sits 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and could reach a 1.5 degree increase between 2030 and 2052.
  • Anthropogenic: Pertaining to or caused by human activity. In the climate change context, this word has been controversial in states like Idaho, where lawmakers have tried repeatedly to remove the term from state science standards.
  • Carbon sequestration: A geologic process of storing carbon dioxide rather than emitting it into the atmosphere. This process can occur at a large scale, like reforestation, or at a small scale, like the garden at Borah High School in Boise, Idaho.
  • Clean energy: A broad set of energy options that encompasses naturally renewable sources like the sun and wind, as well as nuclear power and carbon sequestration.
  • Climate: The average weather—including temperature, precipitation, and rain—over a period of three decades, according to the World Meteorological Association.
  • Climate change: The process by which human activity, starting as early as 1830, has contributed to a rise in the earth’s temperature.
  • Climate justice: A social movement that aims to raise awareness, develop solutions, and push for concrete action to address the disproportionate effects of climate change and other society-wide challenges on marginalized people, including people of color, people with disabilities, and poor people.
  • Composting: The natural process of recycling organic matter. Engaging in the composting process provides an ideal environment for food scraps and leaves to break down into nutrient-rich soil, often known as “black gold.”
  • Decarbonization: The process of phasing out and eventually eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from industry.
  • Diesel: The fuel that powers the vast majority of the nation’s 500,000 school buses. It’s known to emit dangerous levels of carbon dioxide and lead to harmful health effects, including the possibility of causing cancer.
  • Electrification: The process of replacing systems that use fossil fuels with systems that run on electricity generated from renewable or low-carbon sources.
  • Energy efficiency: Completing the same task or process while reducing the amount of energy expended in the process.
  • Energy service company (ESCO): Accredited contractors whose work is geared toward retrofitting aging building systems with the goal of reducing emissions and reducing costs through energy savings. ESCOs make commitments to their clients, including school districts, in an environmental service contract (ESC).
  • Environmental racism: The phenomenon by which institutional rules and structural conditions expose people in marginalized groups to disproportionate harm. Examples include colonial Americans’ efforts to drive Native Americans from their homes; the proximity of toxic waste sites to areas with large of communities of color; and higher temperatures in parts of cities that were segregated by race.
  • Fossil fuel: Natural energy sources—like coal or natural gas—that derive from the remains of long-dead organisms and emit greenhouse gases. More than 80 percent of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and more than 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption, comes from fossil fuels.
  • Green team: A group of like-minded students and staff who meet regularly to strategize and advocate for improvements in their school buildings and districts with an eye toward sustainability.
  • Greenhouse gas: A gas, typically derived from burning fossil fuels, that traps heat from the sun on the surface of the planet and prevents it from traveling back through the atmosphere. Examples include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, methane, and ozone.
  • Natural gas: Non-renewable fuel that powers some school buses and many schools’ HVAC systems.
  • Net zero: Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in December 2021 committing the United States to achieve net zero by 2050. Several states and many cities have made similar commitments for 2050 or even as early as 2030 or 2040.
  • Renewable energy: Energy collected from sources that can be renewed at regular intervals—sun, wind, rain, waves, and geothermal heat.
  • Sustainability: The United Nations defines this term as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It’s a philosophy that emphasizes a mindful approach to ensuring humans’ continued vitality as a species without compromising the natural world that sustains us.
  • Tax-exempt lease purchase agreements: A method of public financing state and local governments, including school districts, can use to pay for energy-saving improvements with the money they’ll save from the long-term energy savings those improvements will produce.

About This Series

This article is part of an ongoing Education Week series, The Climate Crisis and Schools, 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 staff writer Madeline Will at mwill@educationweek.org.

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘It Has to Be a Priority': Why Schools Can’t Ignore the Climate Crisis

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