A teachable moment on sustainability

Can cleaner air boost academic performance?

This is far from a typical year. We can, and should, use this moment to promote bold change. Because — even as our nation grapples with an acute public health emergency wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting fiscal crisis — the U.S. remains largely unprepared for another disaster that is already in progress and will only grow into the future: the threat of climate change. We — a former governor and administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and a former U.S. education secretary — believe that America’s public schools are an essential and, as of yet, an underutilized asset in the fight against climate change and the work to build stronger communities.

As the impact of climate change becomes clearer with ever more powerful hurricanes battering our coasts, fires burning in the west, and deluges of rain causing increased flooding in the east, we must use this moment to harness our public schools’ power to secure a sustainable future.

To do this, our schools can equip students with knowledge and skills to mitigate the climate crisis and model sustainable practices.

Students need robust learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to apply this learning to become the successful innovators and leaders we need them to be to address climate change. Educators can teach sustainability through hands-on learning, whether in school gardens or through cross-disciplinary projects. Students research a current challenge in their community and recommend clean, sustainable ways to solve it.

Today’s youth movement in environmental activism has shown how young people bring creativity and energy to sustainable solutions. Still, it is up to us, as educators, policymakers, and community leaders, to support their interests and equip them with the skills to succeed. 

Schools also can be powerful models of promoting sustainability in their communities.

With nearly 100,000 public schools across the country, this means supporting infrastructure improvements and addressing energy use in school buildings to ensure that they are operating safely, efficiently, and sustainably. With control over 480,000 diesel school buses operating for public school districts — the largest mass transit fleet in the country — means transitioning to electric school buses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. With more than 7 billion meals served to students every year in public schools, this means taking steps to reduce food waste and increasing access to sustainable food options.

And as the effects of climate change continue to grow, this means building resilience into our education system so that schools and whole communities can withstand learning disruptions related to climate change — including wildfires, floods, heatwaves, and food insecurity — as well as public health threats like the coronavirus pandemic.

To be sure, educators can use all of these things — the transition to clean energy, electric transportation, and sustainable food use — as further opportunities for students’ learning. 

Nowhere is this work more urgent than in communities of color, which already are most impacted by the negative effects of climate change. As America experiences a long-overdue national reckoning around systemic racism, it’s important to note that climate change is, indeed, a racial justice issue. One recent study, for example, shows that Black and Latinx communities in the U.S. are exposed to more air pollution even though they produce less air pollution than white Americans through activities such as electricity use and driving.

Unless we choose to act, communities of color, indigenous peoples, and under-resourced rural and urban communities will continue to be disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change. We know that students of color and low-income backgrounds tend to breathe dirtier air and lack access to safe water and healthy, nutritious food. We know that schools — disproportionately in concentrated poverty areas — pay to maintain outdated infrastructure and technology and inefficient transportation, which prevents them from taking advantage of clean energy opportunities. We must use investments in our schools to advance equity and promote environmental justice. 

Every person in America needs to determine their responsibility to act. That is why we are working with the Aspen Institute to bring together education leaders, environment experts, civil rights leaders, activists, and policymakers in a bipartisan effort to learn about the needs of schools and develop an action plan with policy recommendations to support schools in moving toward climate action.

By enlisting our public schools in the fight against climate change, we can reduce the environmental impact of a large public sector, promote resilience for our communities, and invest in our youth to build a more sustainable and equitable world. 

For too long, our public schools have stood on the sidelines of our country’s climate change conversation while our youth has led it. We are inspired by Naina Agrawal-Hardin, a high school senior and Sunrise organizer and Kiera O’Brien, founder of Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, Vic Barrett, a fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education and Benji Backer, founder of the American Conservation Coalition; and so many others. These youth may come from different political perspectives but share the common desire to preserve our planet.

Our young people are rightly concerned about their futures. Climate change is already and will continue to affect every area of our lives. This crisis demands a comprehensive solution across all sectors, including education. We must see our schools as essential to this fight and prepare our children to take on the challenges of today and tomorrow. 

John B. King Jr. is the president and CEO of The Education Trust and 10th U.S. Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama. Christine Todd Whitman is the Whitman Strategy Group president and former Governor of New Jersey and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. They co-chair K12 Climate Action. 

Tags Barack Obama Climate change Natural environment Sustainability Sustainable building Sustainable development

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