Education and Climate Donors Should Join Forces to Develop Green Schools, Expand Climate Instruction
Even as students flooded back into classrooms this fall following months of remote pandemic learning, more than 1 million were forced to miss additional school time due to another catastrophe: climate change. Flooding from Hurricane Ida and fires on the West Coast shuttered schools for weeks at the start of the school year.
This was no anomaly. Well before the pandemic, the climate crisis was already robbing students of class time. In just one semester in the fall of 2017, more than 9 million students
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Even as students flooded back into classrooms this fall following months of remote pandemic learning, more than 1 million were forced to miss additional school time because of another catastrophe: climate change. Flooding from Hurricane Ida and fires on the West Coast shuttered schools for weeks at the start of the school year.
This was no anomaly. Well before the pandemic, the climate crisis was already robbing students of class time. In just one semester in the fall of 2017, more than 9 million students missed at least some school because of extreme weather. During a time of intensifying climate emergencies, schools are not prepared to perform their most basic function — providing a safe place for students to learn.
Solving the climate crisis is not possible without engaging elementary and secondary educators on multiple fronts — starting with a focus on the buildings themselves. Schools make up the second largest area of public infrastructure in the nation, after highways. While a plan to include schools in the recent federal infrastructure bill was dropped as part of efforts to win votes, school districts still have significant resources for maintenance and construction that could be used to develop environmentally friendly school buildings.
Beyond the buildings themselves, schools are critical to educating young minds about climate change and how to confront it. Children who learn in green schools accrue health, learning, and performance benefits, and they are more likely to change their climate-related behavior. One recent study found that college students who took a yearlong intensive climate course made individual decisions that resulted in a 2.86-ton reduction of carbon dioxide a year.
As schools contend with the pandemic and escalating climate disasters, philanthropy has a vital part to play in accelerating an equitable transition in schools nationwide to zero emissions and influencing the climate actions of future generations. But to have a significant impact, foundations focused on education or climate need to break free of their program constraints and commit to working together.
Contributing to Inequities
Education grant makers who ignore climate change risk seeing their work undermined by increased climate-related educational inequities.
Like Covid-19, the burdens of climate change fall most heavily on communities of color. For example, extreme heat in schools is responsible for an estimated 5 percent of the racial achievement gap in education. Last summer, schools in geographical areas as diverse as Maine and Maryland closed early because classrooms were too hot. Efforts to help students recover from lost learning time during the pandemic, such as extending school years deeper into the summer, could be hampered by a lack of air conditioning in school buildings.
Similarly, philanthropists focused on climate who don’t have an elementary and secondary strategy are forgoing an opportunity to educate and influence a large segment of the population about the perils of climate change and effective responses. Prepandemic, one in six Americans, including students, teachers, administrators, and parents, spent time on school campuses every day. That makes them powerful places to showcase the full breadth of climate solutions, including low-carbon buildings, zero-emission transportation, sustainable food, and climate-smart management of land and water resources.
Schools spend $12.5 billion annually on utilities and emit the equivalent of more than 42 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. But recent research shows that zero-energy school buildings can now be constructed at the same cost or even less than conventional schools. Philanthropy can help by funding efforts to build awareness and advocate for more such schools, while the construction costs are covered by public funds.
Communities as a whole benefit from these climate-resilience measures since schools provide shelter, food, and medical services in times of crisis. Deploying climate solutions in schools will also create local jobs and increases public awareness of both the need for and benefits of climate action.
Grant makers can foster public dialogue and encourage action from local governments through a comprehensive school and climate strategy that embraces the following approaches:
Fund research and data. A lack of data on how climate change affects instructional time has stymied action. Effective efforts have been created to fill the void, including CalMatters’ Disaster Days database, which tracked instructional days lost in public schools due to natural disasters and other emergencies from 2002 to 2019. A project called Gen:Thrive, created by EcoRise, uses data and mapping tools to track and expand environmental-education programs in elementary and secondary schools that serve low-income students. Philanthropic investment could help create and expand efforts like these in every state.
Support policy innovation and planning. Government has a substantial role to play in promoting the equitable decarbonization of schools — and philanthropy can help by funding innovative climate-focused policies. For instance, the organization we founded, UndauntedK12, provides policy expertise and other advice to federal and state leaders on climate-focused opportunities in schools.
Philanthropy might also provide planning grants to school districts to support climate-resilience projects like green schoolyards to better manage water surges during flooding or energy storage to ensure schools have power during outages. Additionally, philanthropic support is needed in school districts such as Los Angeles, Miami-Dade, and Salt Lake City, that have passed clean-energy resolutions. These districts need assistance from nonprofits like New Buildings Institute, which can help them develop carbon-neutral school buildings.
Invest in public-private partnerships. The climate emergency requires rapid deployment of climate solutions throughout the economy. This includes electrifying the nation’s largest form of public transportation — school buses — and providing schools with batteries for energy storage and high-performance heating and cooling solutions such as heat pumps.
Philanthropy can be a nimble, risk-taking partner to support testing new climate technologies and approaches in the elementary- and secondary-school arena. For instance, projects such as Scale Zero, which aims to reduce emissions in affordable housing, could be extended into schools with philanthropic investment.
Philanthropy can also join with private investors to fund climate solutions for schools that serve low-income families. For example, Inclusive Prosperity Capital is a nonprofit investment fund that has paired philanthropic and private capital to finance solar and energy storage for low-income urban communities.
Help build expertise. For decades, philanthropy has partnered with colleges and nonprofits to bring talented teachers and administrators to school districts. A similar approach is needed to build climate knowledge and expertise in school districts and among educators so they can effectively integrate climate into curricula and other school activities.
Several organizations are already doing this work, but they need to have a wider reach. For example, the Center for Green Schools provides training and resources to school district staff on how to save energy, reduce waste, and promote curricula focused on environmentally sustainable practices. And during the pandemic, nonprofits came together to launch the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative to provide resources for moving instruction outside during the pandemic and beyond.
Expand innovative programs. Model efforts for climate education and youth leadership need more funding and should be replicated in communities nationwide. Climatarium in Colorado supports rural schools to develop career pathways that address changes to the local economy caused by climate change. WE ACT for Environmental Justice, based in New York City, provides environmental health and justice leadership training for high-school students. And climate-focused youth-development programs such as Action for the Climate Emergency, Strategic Energy Innovations, and Climate Generation help mobilize young people to address climate change.
Students themselves are eager to learn more and do what they can to counter climate change. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 57 percent of teens reported that climate change makes them feel afraid, but 54 percent said it makes them feel motivated to take action. The expertise in the philanthropic world already exists to give students what they want and need. Now education and climate grant makers need to come together to make it happen.