LA Times: Why we can’t solve the climate crisis without schools — and teachers
BY SAMMY ROTH
When wildfire smoke blocked the sun and turned the sky orange above the San Francisco Bay Area in September 2020, Andra Yeghoian’s two young children, ages 3 and 5, were scared. And they had questions: What was going on? Was this normal?
Yeghoian did her best to explain and to comfort them.
“I can’t not talk about climate change with my kids,” she said. “It’s the same for teachers with their students.”
Yeghoian is one of the lead authors of a new report — released Thursday and shared exclusively with The Times — exploring how K-12 schools can educate students about climate change, while contributing to climate solutions themselves.
It’s a fascinating read, full of useful ideas for teachers, lawmakers, government agencies, school districts and kids. It was written by university researchers and staffers at a variety of nonprofits, advocacy groups and other organizations, with funding from the Schmidt Family Foundation, which is backed by former Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy.
The report’s basic argument is that schools are uniquely positioned to help solve the climate crisis.
California’s elementary and secondary schools have a huge physical footprint, covering 125,000 acres of ground and 730 million square feet of buildings. That means they’re prime spots for solar panels, batteries, heat pumps, electric buses and efficiency measures that can reduce the need for fossil fuels. The report estimates that K-12 public schools produce 9% of all carbon dioxide pollution from the state’s nonresidential buildings — not counting pollution from cars and buses going to and from schools.
Children, meanwhile, spend about 180 days a year on campus, playing, eating and learning — not to mention breathing.
The wildfire smoke that increasingly fills California’s skies as temperatures rise isn’t just scary for kids — it’s bad for their lungs and can hamper their ability to learn. The report cites recent research linking wildfire smoke with lower test scores.
Smoky air can also fuel respiratory illness and keep kids out of the classroom with asthma attacks. In 2007 alone, California K-12 students missed 1.6 million school days due to asthma. The report’s authors estimate that by midcentury, there could be a 50% increase in children’s hospitalizations for respiratory issues as global warming fuels bigger, more destructive fires.
For Lisa Patel, a Stanford University pediatrician and one of the report’s lead authors, it was COVID-19 that first shined a light on the importance of clean air in the classroom. Her daughter started kindergarten while campuses were shut down in 2020, prompting her to research how schools could reopen safely. She learned that ventilation and air conditioning systems are crucial for filtering out viruses, as well as dangerous particles from wildfire smoke. But many schools don’t have them.
But here’s where we turn to solutions. Building schools that run on renewable energy and provide shelter from heat and smoke, the report argues, will not only protect children — it can also support entire communities struggling to deal with climate change impacts and help prepare young people to thrive in a world that’s only getting hotter.
I talked with Jeff Vincent, co-founder of UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools and another of the report’s lead authors. He told me that many of California’s 10,000 public schools already serve as community centers during climate disasters, when there’s nowhere else to go. Schools have served meals to first responders battling fires and storms, given people displaced by extreme weather a place to sleep, and helped heat-stressed kids and their families cool down — if they have air conditioning, that is.
It’s crucial, Vincent said, to make sure that all schools have the modern, upgraded facilities needed to serve those roles — and not just campuses in wealthier neighborhoods, where it’s easier to raise money for costly infrastructure projects via bonds.
“Other states provide more funding for lower-wealth schools to fix up their facilities,” he said. “California doesn’t really do that.”
In the future envisioned by the researchers, schools could serve as community assets during “normal” times, too. They’re often some of the only open areas in park-poor neighborhoods, but many of them have more asphalt than green space.
Replacing pavement with fields, gardens and trees could help reduce neighborhood temperatures and keep carbon out of the atmosphere, while giving students and local residents a place to play and relax, safe from the health dangers of heat.
The report’s authors are urging state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration to develop a master plan for climate-resilient schools — and provide substantial funding to back it up. They cite estimates that over the next decade, local and state government must invest about $150 billion in school facilities across California, about double current spending levels. The money would go toward badly needed infrastructure upgrades, including but not limited to clean energy and climate projects.
It’s especially important for the state to direct climate money to schools in low-income areas, Vincent said, because those are the places where people are at greatest risk from extreme heat, pollution and other consequences of burning fossil fuels.
At least one legislator is already listening.
Jonathan Klein — a co-founder of the nonprofit UndauntedK12 and another of the report’s lead authors — pointed me to Senate Bill 394, introduced last month by Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach). It’s a “spot bill” still waiting to be filled out with details. But the goal is clear: to “require the creation of a master plan for achieving sustainable and climate-resilient school facilities.”