School & District Management

The Missed Opportunity for Public Schools and Climate Change

By Arianna Prothero — November 29, 2023 4 min read
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K-12 school systems are vital to cities’ plans to mitigate the effects of climate change. But while a growing number of cities are creating climate action plans, school districts often get left out of the equation.

That’s a missed opportunity, say the authors of a recent report from This Is Planet Ed, an initiative of the Aspen Institute. Schools are not only positioned to both promote climate change literacy and prepare students for the clean energy jobs of the future, but they’re also a significant source of greenhouse gases. In many cities, school districts are among the largest building owners, transportation managers, and employers, and they should be included in any efforts to mitigate climate change, the report argues.

Collectively, U.S. public schools operate 480,000 buses and serve 7 billion meals annually, the growing, production, and transport of which produces greenhouse gases in addition to food and plastic waste. Districts are positioned to significantly influence municipal climate action initiatives—if they are included.

“These plans also facilitate cross-sector collaboration—between different sectors, like health, infrastructure, and government—to create a cohesive and robust plan for action,” the report said. “However, the education sector is often underutilized in these strategies, despite its critical role in supporting children, youth, and communities.”

That’s even though Americans, by and large, support schools taking an active role in addressing climate change, according to a survey by the Center for Sustainable Futures and The Public Matters Project at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Most Americans are in favor of schools taking steps to reduce their carbon footprints, such as installing solar panels and buying food from local farms, and 8 in 10 say it’s important for schools to teach students about climate change—with 50 percent saying it’s very important.

But many municipal climate action plans don’t have ambitious strategies for leveraging local schools in achieving their climate resiliency and decarbonization goals.

After analyzing 35 climate action plans among the nation’s 40 most populous cities, the report’s authors found that education was most commonly mentioned when highlighting schools’ role in educating students about the environment, but less so regarding the operation of schools.

A majority—23—of the climate action plans included what the report describes as at least one substantive partnership between the municipal government and the K-12 sector, such as electrifying school buses or expanding composting and recycling efforts.

Even so, the extent to which cities’ climate action plans tap schools and leverage them to their full potential in implementing the plan and meeting its goals varied significantly.

See also

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

Tucson, Ariz., is developing a climate, sustainability, and conservation curricula specific to its city in partnership with local schools and a locally based nonprofit. In Milwaukee, the school district is partnering with the city and other agencies to replace large asphalt playgrounds—which trap heat and push up temperatures in urban areas—with rain gardens and other sustainable landscaping.

Twenty-three cities out of the 35 with climate action plans also included a representative from the K-12 sector in the development of the plans, with nine including students. The addition of education stakeholders affected the development of the climate action plans for the better, the report said.

The cities that did not include a representative from their local schools “lacked the depth and specificity seen in those with K-12 input,” the report said.

Schools stand to gain a lot from city-led initiatives to lower greenhouse gas emissions and build more climate-resilient infrastructure. Making school buildings and operations more energy efficient, for example, will save schools money in the long run.

And then there are the effects a changing climate will have on students. As global temperatures rise, so too will children’s health and academic problems, experts predict. Heat waves, floods, wildfires, and more severe storms are increasingly disrupting school operations and students’ education.

Extreme heat also makes it harder for students to learn and can affect their performance on tests and their mental health. Worsening air quality—another side effect of climate change—can affect children’s lung and brain development, according to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Even so, most school district leaders said they had not taken any action in the past five years to prepare for more severe weather related to climate change, when asked in a 2022 survey by the EdWeek Research Center.

That was in part because of concerns over potential community pushback and the perception that climate change will not impact their local area. Those barriers make prioritizing initiatives to address climate change over other pressing issues—like students’ struggling academic achievement and mental health coming out of the pandemic—especially difficult for education leaders.

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