In what is a good sign for climate activists—and the planet—the Biden–Harris transition team has included addressing climate change as one of its top four challenges, along with COVID-19, economic recovery, and racial equity. Joe Biden also has named John Kerry to the newly created post of special presidential envoy on climate change, signalling that the United States would rejoin the international effort, and reportedly will appoint former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy to head the newly formed Office of Domestic Climate Policy.

But what will domestic actions to combat climate change look like? As organizations like the Climate 21 Project have proposed, there is ample opportunity for federal agencies and departments to combat climate change here at home, starting on day one of the new administration. What’s often missing from media coverage of these proposals, however, is what the Department of Education can do.

America’s K–12 public school system is huge, consuming vast amounts of energy to build, heat, cool, and light its buildings; operating the largest mass transit fleet in the country; and sourcing food to feed millions of students on a daily basis. Furthermore, as educators and trainers of the nation’s decision makers and workforce, the nation’s K–12 schools and colleges, universities, and training programs can both promote concern for taking climate action and prepare the workforce to get the job done.

The Environmental Footprint of America’s Schools

The nation’s schools comprise a large public sector with a sizable environmental footprint. To serve nearly one in every six Americans, our schools have considerable energy, land, infrastructure, transportation, and food needs. Annual energy costs for schools have been estimated at $8 billion annually—the second highest expenditure schools make behind only salaries—and schools are among the largest consumers of energy in the public sector. In transportation, the country’s school bus fleet is sizable. With approximately 480,000 primarily diesel school buses, schools operate the largest mass transit fleet in the country, driving an estimated 3.45 billion miles annually. Schools also serve over 7 billion meals each year. Food procurement decisions, menu options, and food waste all have an environmental impact. In fact, schools produce an estimated 530,000 tons of food waste per year. Though efforts have been made to build net-zero energy schools, transition schools buses to electric, and increase access to local sustainable food, our school system has a long way to go.

Currently, just over 5 percent of schools use some solar power to generate energy. However, increasing access to solar can help save schools money. For instance, Batesville School District in Arkansas installed solar to cover half of the district’s energy use and with additional energy efficiency strategies significantly reduced energy costs. These savings were used to prevent layoffs and provide bonuses for teachers. In Stockton Unified School District, an energy education initiative combined with solar adoption at over half of the district’s schools has saved the district over $15 million in the past seven years.

Yet, under-investment in our over 100,000 school buildings across our country have left many school buildings in disrepair. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, over half of all school districts need to update major building systems including HVAC, heating, ventilation, and more. Due to resource and environmental inequities, schools located in communities with higher populations of low-income students are in poorer condition than schools in higher-resourced communities, and thus cost more annually for upkeep and maintenance—further exacerbating funding inequities across communities and preventing these schools from shifting toward more efficient, healthy, and sustainable buildings. Supporting more schools across the country to make progress toward net-zero emissions while also improving the quality of the learning environment will not only increase the environmental sustainability of our schools but also ensure that local taxpayer dollars in the future can be devoted more for instruction rather than operations. Ensuring that infrastructure investments prioritize equity by targeting schools with the most need in low-income communities can help to narrow the resource equity gap while also promoting increased access to healthy, safe, and sustainable learning environments for students.

Education as a Source of Climate Solutions

In addition to mitigating the education sector’s environmental impact, there are also opportunities to make education part of the solution. Education has been identified as a critical social tipping point to address climate change. Schools serve over 50 million children annually—education can help to prepare children and youth to advance a more sustainable world. Yet, currently only twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia include human-caused climate change in their science standards, and only five states include climate change in social studies standards.

Furthermore, America’s workforce can be educated and trained to participate in building a greener economy. For example, wind turbine technicians and solar installers are predicted to be the fastest growing jobs in the coming decade. However, only twenty-nine states have career and technical education programs and pathways that support clean energy jobs. Schools can use the transition to more sustainable operations to support teaching and learning. For instance, in Stockton, students track and measure energy savings through energy dashboards. The district is also in the process of building charging infrastructure and acquiring electric school buses. A key component of this plan is a connection to their career and technical education program to support students in learning about electric vehicles, batteries, and mechanics.

Supporting children and youth in learning about climate change and sustainability can equip them to better face the environmental challenges of the future and harness the opportunity to transition to a sustainable economy.

Looking Ahead

As the Biden–Harris administration continues to build out a cross-agency plan to address climate change, the Department of Education should be engaged in this work. In fact, the Paris Agreement, which the incoming administration has indicated they will rejoin, requires a national strategy on Action for Climate Empowerment, which includes education. The Department of Education provides critical support for education, including professional development for teachers, services for students from low-income families, career and technical education, funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and more. In planning for the first Biden Administration budget, these programs should be considered as opportunities to address climate change, and likewise plans to address climate change should consider how education can help.

Additionally, the administration will likely be developing proposals to stimulate the economy. As outlined in the Biden Campaign’s Build Back Better Plan, infrastructure investments will be a key component of this stimulus. Ensuring that such infrastructure investments help reduce the environmental impact of our schools has the added benefit of improving student health, providing learning opportunities, and reducing annual operations costs.

Climate change will impact every facet of our society from the economy, to issues of racial justice, to our public health, to our education sector, to our daily lives. With the pervasive nature of the problem we are facing, we need to tap all sectors to be a part of the solution. In addition to the technical solutions to climate change, considering how we can support education to build the capacity and invest in people will help ensure long-term sustainability for our future.