The potential of schools to have meaningful and outsized impact on the climate crisis is tremendous. I recently heard a story to illustrate this point. It started in a grade seven science class in south Florida where a student learned about the impact of food waste in our landfills. The class learned that according to the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S., methane, which is emitted by rotting food, is at least 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in our atmosphere. One grade 7 student became deeply interested in this issue, and a passion grew. She became an advocate for diverting food waste from landfills to composting programs, and convinced her parents to compost at home – not the norm in this region. Her passion was contagious – as 12-year-old passion can often be – so much so that her mother took her passion to work. Her mom is an administrator in a regional hospital group where, you guessed it, there is now an institutional composting program in place.
So what was the true impact of that one grade 7 girl and her project? How many GHGs will be reduced at school, at home, and in those hospitals as a result? How many hospital staff will take their workplace experience home and make changes there? How many other students in that class brought climate change solutions home to their parents, who in turn took that knowledge into their own daily lives? What long-term behaviour change was inspired? When you think about it, the impact is truly remarkable, and impossible to calculate.
For some time, I have believed that our schools can have an outsized impact in solving the climate crisis, along with the many intersecting crises of our time. Our grade 7 composting advocate is a perfect example. I often talk about something I call “kitchen table math”. I invite you to do some calculations now: how many kitchen tables in your school community? Break it down: how many families? Faculty & staff? Food services vendors? Board members? Alumni/ae? So what’s the number – 600? 1000? More? And then consider, who are those people sitting at those kitchen tables? Where do they go to work everyday? What community organizations do they support? What government positions do they hold?
I have read that there is perhaps no more successful climate communicator and advocate than the earnest young person talking with their parents. Research conducted by Danielle Lawson et al in 2019 confirms it. For anyone who has worked in a school, or spent time with earnest middle schoolers, this makes perfect sense. What starts at a kitchen table can change the world.
Despite the inspiring compost example, and the research, I wish we could leave our children and young people out of the whole thing. We, the adults, in positions of power and influence at all levels, should be all over this crisis, and well down the path of solutions. But we are not, they know it, and they are suffering. Lindsay Galway and Ellen Field conducted a study in 2022 of Canadian young people aged 16 – 25, putting numbers to their worries. Young people reported feeling afraid (67%), anxious (63%), and powerless (58%) in relation to climate change. Nearly half (48%) think humanity is doomed. Almost 4 out of 5 (78%) say climate change affects their mental health. 65% of young people surveyed believe that the education system in Canada should be doing “more” or “a lot more” to educate young people about climate change. Specifically, they asked for an increase in climate change content, a focus on teaching solutions and taking action, and mental health support. Just imagine being 15 years old right now.
We don’t need the numbers to see all of this – we all know young people who are feeling angry, betrayed, full of despair, or just hopeless. Or others who have set aside their carefree youth to become activists and change makers, growing up far too early and taking on far too much responsibility to save the world. We also know the young people who are (rightfully so) becoming increasingly intolerant of adults praising them as the hope for saving our future. This is wrong on so many levels – don’t get me started.
It is clear: the climate crisis is the most significant crisis the world has ever faced. The survival of humanity is at stake. What we do now, and before 2030, matters most. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in his remarks about the most recent IPCC report on climate change, made another urgent plea. He called for leaders in every sector, in every country, to advance their goals. If we had 2050 goals, we should make them 2040. 2040 goals should now be 2030 targets.
So in the K-12 sector, in Canada, the U.S., and around the world, who are those leaders? Who should they be?
Peter Block, in his 2001 book The Answer to How is Yes; Acting on What Matters, talks about how we are slow to take steps forward on our most challenging problems. When there isn’t a clear path, a best practice or a how-to guide cannot be found, we often hesitate, or freeze altogether. I know K-12 leaders who hesitate – overwhelmed, and wondering: what could we possibly do? What difference could we possibly make?
The outsized impact we can have, as in the composting story I started with, provides one set of answers to those questions. Another is that our children need to witness, experience, and work with each other and the adults in their lives taking meaningful action to address this crisis. Their mental health today, as well as their overall health and wellness in the future, is at stake. In one of my favourite books, Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think is Critical to Solving The Environmental Crisis, author Elin Kelsey makes a compelling case for the importance of learning about where humanity is already having an impact to improve and heal our environment, and how taking meaningful action can help us become even more hopeful. As teachers, administrators, custodians, board members, parents, we need to model the urgency, creativity and action-orientation the situation is calling for. Taking the wisdom from Peter Block, we just need to say “YES” and get moving.
What if we engaged everyone in school communities in building and implementing high-impact, hope-filled, audacious climate action plans? Pooling our creativity and commitment, and making plans aiming for enhancing biodiversity, becoming net-zero, and even climate positive? What if we were working with our local Indigenous leaders, community members, stakeholders of all kinds? What if we were rallying behind a compelling vision of our schools as leading examples of institutions transformed, where regenerative practices are the norm, where our ecosystem is thriving around us, where our buildings contribute to the health and wellness of everyone who spends time in them? What if every learner had a deep appreciation for the rest of nature as our kin, with a sense of the care and stewardship humans must adopt anew? And what if K-12 leaders were working together across provinces, states, and beyond, to share lessons learned, collaborate, and help each other go farther, faster, together?
Imagine the ripple effects. How many kitchen tables would that be? What kind of impact could we have?
In our Climate Action Accelerator Program (CAAP), we have 20 schools signed on across Canada who have said “YES” – without all the answers, but with a willingness to be leaders, to figure it out together. We have a strategic framework, templates and resources, workshops, mentoring, and guest experts to get school teams started. School teams have at minimum a lead administrator, academic, operations and student leaders on their team. Many have teams of a dozen or more people, from all parts of their schools. They have made a 3-year commitment to help each other figure out a path to a climate-positive, regenerative future where every decision we make in our schools contributes to the world we want to create. And, they have committed to sharing their learning for all. There are over 15,000 people learning and working in those schools – how many kitchen tables would that be?
As we mark Earth Month 2023, we must take very seriously the call for action to address the climate crisis, and find new ways to work together for meaningful change.
I have asked many questions in this blog. I have 2 more: if not you, who? If not now, when?
The Climate Action Accelerator Program is now open for enrollment in our third cohort starting in the fall 2023.
We also have many free resources, favourite sources of inspiration, and a growing list of educational organizations beyond our schools whom we admire.