As a 6th grade teacher, it is simple to explain basic climate science to my students. It is nearly impossible to explain the relative silence about the need for collective climate action by the caring, patriotic adults and institutions that nurture them. Last month, a student of mine asked, "If we have known about climate change for so long, why haven't we done enough about it?" I could not give her an honest answer that did not highlight deep contradictions with so many of the values and principles deeply embedded in my classroom and in our institution. I know that the spiral of silence about generational climate justice in my country, from my generation, and from within my own institution is a big part of why we, as a nation, have not acted sufficiently to protect my 6th graders from this climate burden. Fortunately, two weeks ago, my own school district's board officially joined the chorus of school boards breaking that spiral of silence by passing what is currently one of the strongest climate action resolutions by any school district in the nation.
Across our country, school communities are highly-networked, semi-autonomous replicates organized hierarchically. Nearly every school district, school, and classroom in the country shares foundational values, missions, and culture. For example, schools and classrooms across the country actively support and cultivate the following values/principles:
the Golden Rule
science is a useful tool for interpreting the world around us
we can work together to find creative solutions to problems
adults take care of the big things so kids can be kids
our nation can be a force for good in the world
the voices of individuals matter
we can work together to create a more fair and more just community, country, and world
we should speak up for what is right
we should take our fair share
These values align directly with the paradigm our campaign is promoting: if we care about our kids, our country, and justice, we can all speak up for common sense national climate action.
Thanks to this alignment and to the highly networked schools ecosystem, we may be able to get the network of school communities and organizations resonating with a clear voice calling for climate action to protect current and future students. One of the ways we can do this is to use examples of local school board or student council climate action resolutions to engage and energize the many network hubs that connect and shape the schools ecosystem. We have seen this pattern here in Sonoma County. Inspired by the example of the Sebastopol Union School District climate action resolution, the Sonoma County Board of Education (a network hub) was the 2nd school board in Sonoma County to pass a climate action resolution. Within 2 months, 6 more Sonoma County school boards followed their example---the network effect in action. A local school board inspired a county school board to pass a resolution which, in turn, inspired 6 (and counting) additional school boards to pass resolutions. With your help we can replicate this pattern across the country. Below is just a partial list of the many network hubs linking school districts across a region or the country.
We encourage you to reach out to the organizations listed below. Find email addresses for their board members online and write them short, polite emails celebrating examples of school board or student council climate action resolutions. Ask them to also speak up for climate action. Please be respectful. These board members are true public servants. They may not initially agree that they have standing to officially speak up for climate action. They may not initially agree that we have a reached a crisis that already harms current students. They may not initially connect their institution's silence with an erosion of institutional coherence and values. They certainly have competing priorities and are extremely time and resource-constrained. This does not make them bad people. In fact, as leaders of schools, they're great people. And like all people, they respond to social cues and norms of their peers and constituents who surround them.
You may not get a response, but a "slow-drip" campaign of emails and respectful engagement will send clear signals about new paradigms and new social norms. These can build to a tipping point in surprising ways. MIT systems scientist Donella Meadows says this about paradigm changes: There’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from eyes, a new way of seeing. We can help educational leaders experience a paradigm shift and they in turn can galvanize their organizations to speak up for climate action.
These are just some of the organizations that have a mission related to creating great schools and futures for young people. As such, they have standing to speak officially and collectively about the need for climate action. Doing so will not only build political will for national action on climate, but will also preserve the institutional integrity of schools and school-related organizations. Silence on the generational justice issue that our national climate inaction creates erodes the values and coherence of all of these institutions. Each of these institutions and organizations can pass climate action resolutions to help preserve their own institutional coherence and values while also helping to break the logjam on climate action in DC.
State Boards of Education and State Superintendents of Schools
Three final notes: 1. Many of these organizations are highly-networked not only with local districts but also among themselves. For example, board members of the California School Boards Association also serve as board members on the National School Boards Association. Once some of these organizations start establishing the norm of officially speaking up for climate action there is a good chance this norm will spread rapidly through the schools ecosystem.
2. Please be respectful and appreciative when you reach out to these educational leaders. Most of them are true public servants who work very hard with very little resources to create great schools and a great public school system for our kids.
3. It is natural and understandable that leaders of these organizations or their board members may have some hesitancy to officially speak up for climate action. They may feel like doing so is "too political" or not in the purview of their job roles because it is disconnected from the direct mission of supporting schools or increasing student achievement. Four points may help these board members and organizational leaders overcome this hesitancy:
Climate change already negatively impacts schools and student achievement and our lack of national climate policy exacerbates this situation:
Climate Change Traumatizes Students and Trauma Impedes Student Achievement: In places like Sonoma County (CA), Houston, Louisiana, and Florida the direct harm to schools and school children due to climate change is historical. Across the country it is predicted to increase. Tens of thousands of school children have already lost their homes or suffered trauma due to disasters which were made demonstrably worse by climate change. Research suggests that trauma related to "natural" disasters directly impedes student achievement.
Climate Change Disrupts School Attendance: The link between student achievement and school attendance is well documented. Consider the money and effort invested by school districts across the country to improve student attendance. Yet, in the last year alone, hundreds of thousands of school children missed weeks of school due to climate-related disasters. Many more school communities across the country should expect to experience these kinds of disruptions if our silence continues to enable national climate inaction.
Silence on climate action and climate justice is just as political as engaging in climate advocacy. And many of these organizations engage in political will-building regularly: Climate change has been politicized in our country in a way that it has not been in other countries. Much of the institutional reluctance to speak up for generational climate justice and even confusion about basic climate science is a result of campaigns by special interests and political groups. So, not speaking up for climate action to protect students may be just as political as speaking up. In addition, for many of these organizations advocacy and political-will building is a primary activity. The National School Board Association endorses policy positions regularly and helps its members become more effective lobbyists. The AASA is hosting a lobby day in DC this summer with the goal of helping to "ensure that our nation's school system leaders and school business officials are driving policy decisions". This is an important tool these educational leaders use to fulfil their mission to support great public schools across the country. This tool exists thanks to our great democratic traditions. There is nothing wrong with it. But, there is no reason educational leaders cannot use this same tool to also help create a healthy climate that will maximize student well-being and achievement for generations to come.
To Preserve Institutional Coherence, Schools and Leaders of School Systems Can Speak Up to Protect Children: My understanding of the foundational values of public schools---scientific thinking, a basic system of morality/character development, and a nurturing of younger generations---taken together seem to logically require us, as a network of institutions, to speak up for climate action. Schools are unusual among public institutions because scientific-thinking, the cultivation of a moral system, and a duty to protect young people is explicitly enshrined in law. Thanks to Next Generation Science Standards and the California Environmental Literacy Standards, most schools in California do a good job of transmitting scientific knowledge about climate change. But our institution aims to develop students that act in moral ways with their knowledge and intellectual skills. California Ed Code, for example, says that teachers should "impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism". It is difficult to achieve this goal when we, as an institution, are silent about generational climate justice. Here's another example that suggests we need to speak up to preserve institutional coherence. All adults in California schools are mandated reporters bound to speak up in cases of neglect or abuse. Neglect or abuse is defined as "negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child by a person responsible for the child’s welfare under circumstances indicating harm or threatened harm to the child’s health or welfare. This is whether the harm or threatened harm is from acts or omissions on the part of the responsible person." It seems clear that hundreds of thousands of school children across the country have already been harmed by climate-related acts andomissions by the generations (especially mine) responsible for their welfare. Some of the harm is due to acts and omissions before many of us knew what we were doing. But the acts and omissions are clear now. And, millions more children are facing a lifetime of tangible threats of harm. I think leaders of institutions whose members are explicitly bound to cultivate a moral system and principles of justice and bound to report cases of individual neglect, diminish their own institutions if they choose to remain silent about the intergenerational neglect that our lack of national climate policy entails. I would be very interested in hearing arguments to the contrary, but I just have not heard them from anyone who fully espouses all three pillars of schools---scientific thinking and critical thought, the cultivation of a moral system, and prioritizing the protection and nurturing of younger generations.
We can do this! Climate change is an enormous, complicated, "wicked problem". But we are up to the challenge especially if we embrace new ways of thinking about our job and institutional roles. We can reconsider the paradigms related to silence, science, politics, and justice that helped create this problem in the first place. As educators and leaders of school systems, we are in the business of helping people think "outside of the box" and to reconsider whether their basic assumptions match the data we observe in the world around us. We are in the business of helping young people develop the ability to see situations in a new light and to consider whether their old habits of mind or work create their intended effect on the world around us. We are in the business of helping young people be assertive and speak up for what they know to be right. We can model these same behaviors and habits that our institutions hope to develop in young people by reconsidering our own assumptions about silence on climate action. Not every issue is so pressing and so significant that it requires us re-examine so much, but I think climate change qualifies. We can all find reasons for silence, but I encourage anyone who has doubts about speaking up for climate action in any context to consider what it would be like to explain any of the reasons for silence to a hypothetical group of 6th graders who understand and value current climate science. Scientists suggest that without significant, collective action, we may use up our "carbon budget" by the time these 6th graders graduate from college. (Here's another series of graphs to help visualize the urgency of the carbon budget). If we haven't weaned ourselves off fossil fuels by the time we use up our carbon budget, we will be rolling the dice and risking catastrophic climate change. Even 6th graders, adolescents attracted to risk, would agree that this would be reckless, irresponsible behavior. Imagine how any explanation for silence by any adult might sound to a group of 6th graders given this context. This thought experiment can help us think in new ways about speaking up for climate action.