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States Must Help Schools Tackle the Climate Crisis—Beyond What’s On the Curriculum

4 minute read
Whitman is the former administrator of the EPA and former governor of New Jersey
Markell is the former governor of Delaware

Climate change is affecting every facet of our society, and its impacts will only become more dire. In 2020, there were 22 different billion-dollar climate disasters in the United States totaling $95 billion in damages. Costs associated with unabated climate change are projected to increase an estimated $257 billion annually for every 1 degree of warming and no state will be spared. New Jersey and Delaware face threats from coastal flooding, more severe hurricanes and increased heat. These changes will affect our manufacturing, agriculture, insurance, transportation, tourism industries and more.

The pandemic and corresponding economic crisis have left many Americans unemployed and many state and local governments concerned about a potential fiscal cliff. The passage of the American Rescue Plan was an essential first step toward a strong recovery, and the Biden Administration has since released a plan to invest $2 trillion in our country’s infrastructure. States now have the opportunity to leverage these federal investments and further this momentum. And just as the Administration has established a whole-of-government approach to addressing climate change, asking all federal agencies to engage in this work, states need to move past assumptions that climate change should be tackled only as an environmental issue.

We are members of the Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action commission tasked with developing an action plan to help our education sector address climate change. Co-chaired by former Secretary of Education John B. King and Governor Whitman, the commission brings together people from different states, sectors and age groups with varying perspectives including advocates, researchers, policymakers, educators and students. With nearly 100,000 schools across the country, our K-12 education sector is one of the largest public consumers of energy and one of the largest public infrastructure investments, and over the past year, we have been hearing from people on the ground about initiatives that have identified climate solutions.

Failure to prioritize school infrastructure has left many school buildings in disrepair; schools received a D+ on America’s Infrastructure Report Card. Our schools also operate the largest mass-transit fleet in the country with 480,000 primarily diesel school buses. Supporting our schools to take climate action is one way governors can demonstrate leadership, create good jobs now, reduce the environmental footprint of a large public sector and help prepare the next generation for success.

Through the commission, we have learned about how local initiatives to transition schools toward sustainability have paid off. To prevent teacher layoffs, Batesville School District in Arkansas invested in solar panels. Now they are able to use their savings to increase teacher pay. Santa Barbara School District is creating microgrids for their schools, and in the event of wildfire-related power outages, community members will have a safe place close to their homes to access power. School districts across the country have transformed asphalt into green schoolyards, which has the added benefit of reduced community flooding and heat.

Our schools don’t just provide an opportunity for infrastructure and transportation improvements today, they also provide avenues for children and youth to learn about the jobs of tomorrow. Students can learn about clean energy and clean transportation and be prepared to integrate environmental sustainability in any career path they choose. P-Tech schools in New York recognize that jobs for the future will require an understanding for environmental sustainability and work with partners including community colleges, the New York Power Authority and Tesla to expose their students to environmental literacy and green careers in their first year of high school. The demand for this knowledge will continue to grow across industries, and career and technical education programs can help ensure today’s youth are prepared.

Together with K12 Climate Action and more than 20 organizational partners representing education, youth, labor, environment, civil rights groups and more, we have released a set of policy principles to accelerate schools’ transition to clean energy, empower youth to access green jobs and build long-lasting change to advance a more sustainable society. By advancing these solutions to support infrastructure, transportation and education while also addressing climate change, governors will be able to help our economic recovery now and make our communities more resilient for the future.

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