More than 200 people attended a forum hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education addressing how K-12 schools can fight climate change Thursday.
Introduced by HGSE Dean Bridget T. Long, the panel featured former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., CEO of Chicago Public Schools Pedro Martinez, and National Education Association President Rebecca S. “Becky” Pringle. Jennifer P. Cheatham, an HGSE lecturer, moderated the discussion.
Long kicked off the forum by explaining the environmental impact of the K-12 public education system in the United States.
“The American education system serves over seven billion meals annually with related food waste. Schools operate one of the largest mass transportation fleets in the country, with over 480,000 diesel school buses, and schools are one of the largest public energy consumers,” she said.
In 2021, King co-chaired a commission within the Aspen Institute evaluating climate action initiatives within the education sector. The commission released its K12 Climate Action Plan in September, which provides local, state, and federal policymakers with a set of recommendations for bringing sustainability and environmental justice into classrooms.
Cheatham noted schools face a slate of environmental issues driven by “air quality, safe drinking water, diesel fuel buses, underinvestment in our school buildings, food waste” and other factors.
“Yet, the opportunities are tremendous,” she said. “The vision that the report lays out, where nearly 100,000 public schools could be leaders in this area, is so compelling.”
According to King, schools can mobilize by improving their facilities and addressing climate change across academic subjects.
Schools can also provide essential resources, such as power, food, or shelter, following natural disasters, King noted.
“Sadly, we're going to have more of those climate change crises, and schools are going to have a critical role to play in terms of community resilience,” he said.
Martinez pointed to the renovation of school facilities as a chance for a shift to sustainable architecture.
“I see an opportunity for us as we renovate our buildings, as we modernize our buildings, to also address climate change,” he said.
Acknowledging the difficulty of solving environmental crises, Pringle said that sustainable practices can be integrated into schools almost immediately.
“We don't have to wait,” she said. “We have a lot to do, and like I said, it's complex, comprehensive problems and will take comprehensive long-term solutions, but there are things we can do right now.”
She called for urgent climate action to guarantee all people an adequate standard of living, free from the threat of environmental crises.
“Rolling in my head is the poetry of the Constitution. We the people, we the people, we the people,” she said. “All of us deserve that right to pursue happiness, and we can't do that if we can't breathe clean air, if we can't drink clean water, if a natural disaster wipes us out every time.”