State of the Planet

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Five Ways Schools Can Advance Sustainability and Climate Justice

Young protestors in a parade
Young protestors call for divestment. Photo: Backbone Campaign/Flickr CC

By Monisha Bajaj

In the past weeks, millions have taken to the streets to demand attention to climate change and its impact on communities around the world. In the U.S., hundreds of thousands of students protested, inspired by youth activists like Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Somali-American high schooler Irsa Hirsi, who co-founded the U.S. Climate Strike, and Autumn Peltier, a 14-year-old who is the appointed chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation.

With activists and scientists sounding the alarm on the climate crisis, what role can schools and educators play in engaging with this complex issue?

Here are five ways schools get involved in making positive change for the planet.

1. ‘Greening’ Your School Campus

Many schools around the world have incorporated sustainable elements into their design, such as rainwater harvesting, solar panels, and energy efficient facilities. An innovative new approach being piloted by the Mycelium Youth Network (MYN) and the Carbon Garden Coalition is to actually create carbon sequestration gardens in schools, starting with the Pear Tree Community School in Oakland, California, which is planting its garden on November 9. According to MYN founder Lil Milagro Henriquez-Cornejo and Pear Tree principal Michele Hamilton, if every school planted such a garden, the rising global temperatures could actually decrease. Students at Pear Tree will be co-monitoring the raised beds to measure the carbon that is being stored and to work towards their campus becoming carbon neutral over time. In this way, green schools are more than just the physical changes; they need to be accompanied by curricula that supports learning and offers students a chance to engage with the green components around the school to deepen their understandings about sustainability.

2. Creating Edible Gardens

Pioneered by chef Alice Waters at a public school in Berkeley, California, ‘edible schoolyards’ are gardens that teach students not only about the science of plants, but also about food security, as what is harvested actually gets utilized in the cafeteria and other venues in the school. Even if schools don’t have the space for a large garden, small plots tended to by students or an afterschool gardening club can produce lessons about the environment and how it links to the food we eat. At Oakland International High School in California — a school for recently arrived immigrant and refugee youth — students in the garden club tend a small plot, and parents have another plot where they can plant fruits and vegetables native to their home countries; through regular opportunities for sharing, students learn about agricultural systems in different countries and migration with the chance to taste dishes cooked from the harvested foods.

3. Starting Environmental Action Clubs

Clubs that engage with environmental issues and coordinate actions can be a great way for students to deepen their learning about climate change and sustainability issues. Clubs can put on events such as for Earth Day, screen films (e.g., this new film on youth activism after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico), bring in speakers, and plan actions such as sustainability audits and advocacy campaigns (see ideas #4 and #5 below). These clubs also provide an opportunity for connecting with community organizations working on environmental justice issues as well as students at other schools, as the National Youth Climate Exchange did back in 2013; through a 4-day retreat they organized, the students produced a powerful Youth Climate Activist Manifesto and Call to Leaders.

4. Conducting Sustainability Audits

A sustainability audit can be carried out by students in an Environmental Action Club or through a class assignment to produce a report on the sustainability practices of a school, home or community. This can be an informative way to better understand issues of waste/recycling and energy/water use, and may lead to recommendations for action. There are some tools developed in the U.S. and globally (namely the Green Schools Audit Manual developed by the Center for Science and Environment in India) that have been developed for waste and energy audits — or students could develop their own. Sample practices schools can support include: discouraging single use plastics in cafeterias; promoting better recycling, reuse, and waste management practices; and creating incentives for carpooling, public transportation, biking or electric cars in parking lots and school drop-off zones.

5. Engaging in Advocacy

While the actions that students, families, and schools can take are important, most of the climate crisis has been caused by corporate entities that account for the vast majority of emissions, and it is governments that must hold them accountable. This is where advocacy can come in: students and teachers can learn about the climate crisis, participate in actions such as letter-writing campaigns or demonstrations like the recent global youth-led climate strike, and lobby lawmakers for greater efforts towards climate justice. The Portland School Board passed the first known resolution for comprehensive climate education in a U.S. school district in 2016 that included mandates for climate justice curriculum and teacher professional development. Last month, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee announced she would introduce a House Resolution on climate justice education, noting that “climate change is a generational social justice, racial justice, and human rights issue” (see here). Students, teachers, and parents play an important role in demanding accountability from lawmakers and elected officials and getting their voices heard on pressing issues, such as climate change.

The issue of climate change makes us feel powerless in the face of its daunting prospects of rising temperatures and natural disasters. It is more important than ever for schools, educators, and students to take action and lead the way toward a more sustainable future.

Additional Resources:

Monisha Bajaj is a professor of International and Multicultural Education at the University of San Francisco. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Teachers College and was an education professor at Columbia for nine years. Her research article with Earth Institute education director Radhika Iyengar on environmental education in India can be read here.

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Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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