School & District Management

U.N. Warns Irreversible Climate Change Is More Likely Than Ever. What Districts Can Do Now

By Mark Lieberman — November 07, 2022 4 min read
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A new report from the United Nations doesn’t mince words: If Earth continues on its current path, policies in place to stop the worst effects of climate change will fail.

School districts in the United States, large and small, should pay attention. On top of preparing K-12 students for a world where climate change effects will be omnipresent, districts annually emit tens of millions of metric tons of carbon, waste hundreds of thousands of tons of food, and operate hundreds of thousands of diesel-emitting school buses.

Scientific consensus says 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels is the maximum increase the planet can endure before catastrophic events like extreme heat and floods that displace millions from their homes become inevitable and routine. Increasingly severe storms, wildfires, and heat waves have already hit many schools, causing devastating physical damage and disrupting student learning.

If the world continues with policies as they currently stand, the temperature will increase 2.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels Celsius by 2030, says the latest annual report from the United Nations Environment Programme, released Oct. 27. If policies that have been pledged but not enacted come to fruition, the increase above pre-industrial levels will be between 2.4 and 2.6 degrees Celsius.

Only a “rapid transformation of societies"—spanning massive efforts to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels and strengthen electrical grids down to individual choices like purchasing renewable energy and turning off unused appliances—will turn the tide, the report says. The globe collectively needs to eliminate 45 percent of carbon emissions in the next eight years.

“We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, told The Guardian. The report was released to preview COP27, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which kicked off Sunday in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

The United States has taken limited action on this issue. This year, President Joe Biden signed into law a $369 billion spending package designed to reduce 50 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions by 2030. New York voters will vote Tuesday on whether to approve $4.2 billion in bonds for fighting climate change, and Californians may approve raising income taxes for wealthy residents to fund electric vehicles and wildfire reduction.

But policies that have emerged in the United States and elsewhere to fight the crisis fall well short of what scientists say are the bare minimum for mitigating climate change’s most deadly effects. A proposal in Congress, for instance, to spend $1.4 trillion over 10 years on making schools greener and more efficient appears unlikely to pass anytime soon.

No school leader can independently effect change on that scale. But experts say it’s important for them to take immediate and concrete action to raise awareness and find solutions. The climate crisis is already having consequences for student learning and well-being—research shows students do worse on tests when they’re hot, and that the number of annual hot days in thousands of districts has increased substantially in recent decades.

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Composite image of school building and climate change protestors.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)

“All school districts should be required to have an action plan,” said Greg Libecci, the energy and resource manager for the Salt Lake City district.

But most don’t: Only 22 percent of school district leaders and principals who answered an EdWeek Research Center survey earlier this year said they have an emergency plan that takes climate change into account. Only 30 percent said they have a facilities plan that factors in climate change.

Libecci’s 40-plus schools are in the process of a $30 million effort to retrofit fluorescent lights with LED equivalents in 37 schools; install 2,500 solar panels on six roofs; and implement controls to use dramatically less water. The district engineered this plan through a tax-exempt lease purchase agreement, which means it will pay for these initiatives with the savings they will generate over time.

What might an action plan look like for a district that isn’t as far along? Phoebe Beierle, the senior program manager for school district sustainability at the U.S. Center for Green Schools, has a few ideas:

Conduct a greenhouse gas assessment. Tally up all the energy your district uses, from HVAC systems to cafeteria appliances. If you don’t know how much your school buildings emit, you won’t know the most fruitful ways to slash those emissions.

Develop a climate action plan with concrete goals. Some districts have pledged to reach “net zero” emissions by 2040 or 2050. Setting benchmarks along the way helps with accountability.

Turn hopes and commitments into school district and board policy. Make sure school leaders are on the same page about where the district wants to be in five, 10, and 20 years.

There’s a lot more districts can do right now to confront the climate crisis. Here are a few ideas.

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