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As a pediatrician in California, Dr Lisa Patel has seen firsthand the impact of climate change on children. She treated severely dehydrated newborns, children whose asthma was exacerbated by forest fires, and heat-related illnesses brought on by games and sports.
These are some of the reasons why Patel co-wrote a recent published report pushing to make California schools more resilient to climate change.
“We’re just at a point where we can’t fix every part of our society as quickly as necessary to keep children safe,” said Patel, who is also an associate clinical professor at Stanford University. “We have to be targeted and, after their house, the children spend the second [amount of] time in their schools.
The report, compiled by researchers, advocates and health professionals, says failing to invest in schools is harming children from both public health and education perspectives, with climate change bringing added urgency .
For Patel, this issue is also personal.
“I got into this, frankly, not as a pediatrician or even as an environmental scientist; I came into this as a parent,” she said. “I have two young children of my own, ages 5 and 7, and my daughter goes to school without an HVAC system. I know what that wildfire smoke data is, and I don’t want my child breathing in those noxious fumes when I know we have the tools to make their school safer.
As the report points out, a 2020 study found that the majority of public schools in California had problems with their HVAC systems, with only 15% meeting the ventilation standard set by the state. HVAC systems are especially important during wildfire season, when smoke dramatically decreases air quality. Wildfire smoke is up to 10 times more toxic to children than other forms of air pollution.
Other issues highlighted by the report include a lack of air conditioning in a state where heat waves are now more frequent and more days are reaching a heat index of 90 degrees due to climate change.
All of this not only harms students’ health – contributing to asthma and exacerbating other respiratory illnesses – but harms their ability to learn. A recent analysis published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Sustainability linked exposure to smoke from wildfires to lower scores on standardized tests. A 2020 study also found a correlation between extreme heat and lower test scores for black and Latino students. One of the reasons given by the researchers was that their schools were more likely to lack air conditioning than those of their white peers. Schools across the country are also having to close more frequently due to extreme heat, as reported by the Washington Post.
There are approximately 11,000 K-12 public schools in California, and their requirements vary widely. Low-income students typically attend schools where buildings and playgrounds have not been renovated in years, or where deferred maintenance has made them more vulnerable to weather events.
“Given the variation in the quality and inequities of school facilities across the state and these new responsibilities for climate resilience and climate change mitigation, the state really needs to play a bigger role. proactive and being more strategic in how you approach this issue,” Jeffrey said. Vincent, director of the Public Infrastructures Initiative at the University of California at Berkeley.
Investing in schools would not just help students adapt to the climate crisis, but their communities as a whole, Vincent said.
“Schools play a number of local roles in their community when there is a climate hazard,” he said. “Kitchens are used for food preparation and food distribution centers. When families or households are displaced, they may sleep in schools or the gymnasium. First responders will often visit schools as well, as they can accommodate fire trucks and ambulances, he added.
Jonathan Klein, co-author of the report and co-founder of UndauntedK12, a nonprofit focused on decarbonizing schools, also sees targeting school infrastructure as a way to reduce carbon emissions in the United States.
“Schools are big infrastructure and big energy consumers, and therefore, significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions,” Klein said. “In terms of the broader climate strategy and clean energy transition that we need to do, school should be one of the first places where we do this work. Because that’s where the kids are: 1 in 6 Americans is on a school campus every day.
One of the main recommendations of the report is that heads of state develop a master plan for schools. “[It would] essentially recognize that conditions have changed and are changing in schools. It’s hotter, it’s drier, there’s more smoke, and our schoolyards aren’t prepared for it,” Klein said.
The plan would also outline actions school districts should take to make schools more resilient to climate change and less contributory to carbon emissions. For example, if a school was considering upgrading its HVAC system, a master plan would likely recommend switching to electric heat pumps, which emit less carbon and are better for air quality.
The report recommends that the state invest $15 billion a year in school infrastructure over the next decade; that’s more than double the $7 billion it currently spends.
New funding in the Cut Inflation Act, which was signed into law in August and earmarks about $370 billion to fight climate change, can ease the transition to clean energy for schools, Klein said. . Schools are eligible for tax credits that can reduce the cost of installing solar panels, battery storage and heat pumps by 30-50%.
“We need to elevate this issue because it’s an emergency for children,” Klein said. “School is where children spend more of their waking hours than anywhere else. We need to ensure resources and attention are aligned with the scale of the problem we face.