The normalcy students deserve remains elusive only weeks into the new school year as possibly millions of children across the United States cope with uncertainty and school-building closures. The COVID-19 pandemic is the obvious cause, but as best science and history can tell us, that crisis will eventually wind down.
Even before then, we must face a larger global challenge to the success and well-being of today’s youth: human-caused climate change. We have begun to see effects on children that portend as much or greater disruption and harm as that caused by the pandemic. As educators and advocates for children, we must do more to address the peril.
In the past few weeks alone, Hurricane Ida battered the Gulf Coast and flooded the Northeast, halting learning and forcing students to flee their communities. California’s ongoing wildfires are destroying homes and schools while depriving children of clean air to breathe.
As a California native who began his teaching career in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina, I have seen environmental damage and its effects on students up close. Educators can play a vital role in mitigating climate change by broadcasting the impact on children and helping to shape policy. Educators, leaders, and families—though already taxed by COVID-19—must better understand, build broader coalitions to address, and ultimately see climate change as an education priority.
Fortunately, the White House has zeroed in on tackling climate change, particularly with its environmental-justice initiative. Forty percent of the federal government’s resources to address climate change, for example, are to support communities identified as disadvantaged. We who care about education should be part of this effort by increasing our awareness of the impact climate change is having on student outcomes and by connecting our education-equity efforts with environmental-justice advocacy.
Connections between climate change and learning outcomes are well documented. Across the United States, carbon emissions from transportation, electricity, and other fossil-fuel-using industries are contributing to higher sustained temperatures producing longer summers, shorter winters, and extreme weather events. These in turn increase the percentage of children experiencing dramatic disruptions to their schooling and the attendant risks to both physical and mental health. Reduced outdoor play, lost learning time, and housing insecurity are among the many consequences.
Connections between climate change and learning outcomes are well documented.
A recent report from the College Board, Georgia State University, Harvard University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, found higher temperatures have direct negative effects on student learning. Black and Hispanic students and those from low-income communities were found to be most impacted as many lack access to air conditioning at home or school. Overall, the study found triple the impact of hot days on the test scores of Black and Hispanic students compared with those of white students.
Wildfires linked to drier weather caused by climate change and resulting environmental hazards accounted for almost two-thirds of the 1,854 days California schools were closed for emergencies in the 2018-19 school year. In addition to destroying homes and communities, fires can increase flooding and create hazardous air quality that indoor recess can hardly protect students against.
A University of Iowa study reports that rising human-caused greenhouse-gas concentrations are producing an increased frequency of a weather phenomenon now called the “Midwest water hose,” which fueled 2019’s historic flooding that destroyed small towns throughout the Midwest.
For some children, the environmental pollutants contributing to climate change pack a one-two punch. Many children have no choice but to live near energy plants, industrial factories, or within congested cities where the burning of fossil fuels produces higher concentrations of greenhouse gases but also lung-harming soot and smog. Some of the same processes are also responsible for the release of toxic chemicals like lead, mercury, and benzene. In Louisiana, where I taught, some children face high rates of cancer due to the proximity of their homes to factories, including in the infamous “Cancer Alley.” Nationwide, rising temperatures and localized pollutants are causing the rates of asthma, one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, to skyrocket.
Yes, it is difficult to argue that education leaders should take on climate change in the midst of a pandemic. But the magnitude of the climate crisis calls for our attention nonetheless. The crisis afflicts all children. And there is now an opportunity for educators to engage policymakers as global leaders prepare to assemble at the United Nation Climate Change Conference in November. The conference will spotlight the United States’ commitments—or lack thereof—to a sustainable future.
Many children already face inequitable circumstances well beyond their control, both within and outside the education system. Communities fighting for educational equity must think more broadly than just what happens within the confines of a school building. To start, take these key climate actions:
- Increase awareness. NOAA’s climate maps highlight drought areas and the probability of severe weather—a consequence of climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool identifies communities with respiratory and other environmental hazards. We can use these two resources to increase awareness of the immediate and long-term environmental challenges communities face.
- Build relationships. Get to know the White House’s Environmental Justice initiative and members of its advisory council from your region. We must ensure these members know us—our school system leaders, advocacy organizations, youth, and parents—so that educational outcomes are part of the climate agenda.
- Organize and act. Many schools serve as safe havens following weather disasters by providing shelter and care. Such responses are admirable, but they alone are insufficient. Federal, state, and local education leaders must explore the local impact of climate change and direct greater funding toward improvements to our aging school infrastructure. Most important, education leaders should proactively develop communitywide climate priorities with youth, parents, educators, advocates, and others most impacted.
Within schools, we want children to be in classrooms designed to help them meet their full potential. Similarly, we want children to thrive in a world that is safe, clean, and free from the harm of human-caused climate change. If we are to clear a promising path for our youth, especially children of color and children experiencing poverty, we can’t wait any longer to address climate change.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2021 edition of Education Week as We Must Treat Climate Change As an Education Emergency