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Young people feel betrayed by government inaction on climate change — we must take action

Protesters with Fridays for Future and other climate groups demonstrate outside the White House on Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 2022
Greg Nash
Protesters with Fridays for Future and other climate groups demonstrate outside the White House on Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 2022

With the impacts of climate change accelerating, it’s worth remembering that young people have the most to lose. Seventy five percent of young people in the U.S. have indicated a moderate to extreme worry about climate change, while reporting feelings of betrayal and distrust with our government’s long delayed climate action. With Congress divided for the next two years, the best opportunity to remedy this now lies with the Biden administration.

The good news is that we have a powerful tool to combat climate change — the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). As former leaders of federal agencies, we know that the success of meeting the IRA emissions reductions potential rests in effective implementation. Luckily, the most just implementation strategy is also effective.

We can seek to repair young people’s justified distrust and reduce eco-anxiety with implementation of the IRA by advancing solutions that touch the lived experience of today’s young people. In a 2019 Washington Post poll, only 14 percent of teens indicated they had the opportunity to learn a lot about climate solutions in school. Now, with the IRA we can deploy clean energy solutions across America’s public schools enabling students to engage with climate solutions firsthand.

With nearly 100,000 schools across the country, public schools are among the largest consumers of energy in the public sector, and they operate the largest mass transit fleet in the country with 480,000 primarily diesel school buses. Currently only 9% of schools utilize solar, and less than 1 percent of America’s school bus fleet is electric. Yet, the demand for clean energy in schools is increasing. The Environmental Protection Agency recently doubled its first round of funding for the Clean School Bus program due to avid demand, with applicants in every state. Advancing climate solutions in schools has the potential to improve student health and learning while reducing annual costs for energy, maintenance, and operations.

Research has also shown that teaching climate change in schools —and implementing solutions as part of school infrastructure — can snowball into positive actions at home. Last year, we visited Alice West Fleet Elementary School, a net-zero energy school, in Arlington, Va. The educators we met spoke about how students have encouraged their parents to adopt practices they learned about at school in their homes, including composting food waste and utilizing rain barrels to reduce water use. 

When we make schools climate-smart, students all over the country could bring renewed hope and determination for positive action to their families and communities. This is no small opportunity—50 million Americans, nearly one in six, is enrolled in a public school. Empowering students and equipping schools can, in turn, influence more people to take advantage of the tax credits and rebates outlined in the law, getting us closer to a sustainable future. 

The opportunity is clear, but the law is complicated. School systems will need support to harness the potential of this moment.

Leaders of federal agencies can help our school systems understand their opportunities. For example, the IRS can provide guidance about how schools can take advantage of the clean energy tax incentives. Schools, like many other non-taxable organizations, will be able to access funding through the direct pay provisions. This can lower the upfront cost to install clean technology like geothermal heat pumps. Schools can still spend American Rescue Plan funding to replace HVAC systems—they need to understand how the credits in the IRA can make clean technology the most cost-effective option. For electric school buses, the clean commercial vehicle credits could help schools save up to $40,000 per bus. 

The Environmental Protection Agency can elevate schools when rolling out grants. For instance, the $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund will establish green banks to open up financing mechanisms to help communities reduce emissions. Schools in low-income communities, most impacted by climate change and education inequities, could use funding from green banks to create healthy, sustainable learning environments that use solar and other renewable energy. The EPA should make the connection to schools explicit. 

Federal leaders will play a critical role, but they can’t do it alone. School leaders at all levels must recognize that even where the law is not explicit in referencing them, and grants might not be coming from the Department of Education, they can still act. District leaders, administrators, financial officers, and educators should be on the lookout for ways they can leverage the federal support. 

The IRA gives young people a direct and effective conduit for activism and change. Students in cities like Salt Lake and Denver have pushed their school boards to pass resolutions to transition school districts to 100 percent clean energy. The funding opportunities the act provides can help students make their case for action even stronger. 

With This Is Planet Ed with the Aspen Institute, we are working to help. We have released a guide to help schools understand the potential programs where they can benefit. We’ve also created similar guides to help the early childhood sector and post-secondary education. 

There is much work to be done to restore our planet and create a more prosperous, healthy and sustainable future. Centering children and youth in the implementation of the IRA can bring people together and help communities reap long-lasting benefits for our health, our economy and our society. And our children deserve it. 

John B. King Jr. is co-chair of This Is Planet Ed at the Aspen Institute and 10th U.S. secretary of Education under President Barack Obama.

Christine Todd Whitman is co-chair of This Is Planet Ed at the Aspen Institute and former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush.

Tags Biden Climate change Inflation Reduction Act

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