April 17, 2024

Students at more than 50 high schools across the US are proposing a Green New Deal for Schools, demanding that their districts teach climate justice, create pathways to green jobs after graduation and plan for climate disasters, among other policies.

The campaign, coordinated by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate justice collective, is a reaction to rightwing efforts to ban or suppress climate education and activism at schools. The national effort could include teach-ins and walkouts, as well as targeted petitions to school boards and districts in the coming weeks, organizers with Sunrise told the Guardian, ahead of the Monday launch.

“We are prepared to do whatever it takes,” said Adah Crandall, 17, an organiser for the Sunrise Movement based in Portland, Oregon.

“The far right has waged this battle against school boards and against public education, and they put a lot of time and money into trying to do things like ban books and prevent us from learning the truth about the climate crisis,” said Crandall. “And all of these things, all of these things are happening while the climate crisis is raging outside of our windows.”

The Green New Deal for Schools includes demands to update school buildings, buses and other infrastructure to make them more climate resilient. They are also asking that administrators develop climate disaster plans to keep students safe during extreme weather, and free and ideally locally sourced lunches.

After living through the hottest summer on record, students returned to campuses this year as searing heatwaves overtook the central US, a deadly wildfire scorched Maui, a rare tropical storm threatened the west coast and another pummelled southern Texas.

Students across the US are painfully aware that many of these weather extremes have been aggravated by the burning of fossil fuels, even as conservative politicians and educators refuse to engage with the topic, said Summer Mathis, a 16-year-old student at North Cobb high school in Kennesaw, Georgia.

But at school, most teachers have avoided or discouraged the discussion of any topics that could be considered political, including climate justice, said Mathis. “We don’t learn about climate change at all,” she said.

Inside a wood-panelled room, students in pairs stand across a table from each other painting signs. In the foreground a Black teenage boy wearing all olive green with a white bandana holding back his black hair paints with a white-presenting girl wearing a brightly colored Keith Haring tank top and black shorts, her medium-length brown hair pulled back in two short pigtails.
Students plan to lead teach-ins, walkouts and petitions to school boards and districts. Photograph: Heather Chen/Courtesy of Sunrise Movement

Under Georgia’s vaguely worded “divisive concepts” law, aimed at suppressing education about race and racial inequities, teachers are unable to talk about climate justice and the unequal toll of global heating. In other Republican-led states, factual climate education is being targeted directly.

Earlier this year, the Texas state board of education altered its guidance to schools to encourage emphasising the “positive” aspects of fossil fuels in science textbooks. Florida’s education board approved the dissemination of animated videos, developed by the conservative group PragerU, that compare climate activists to Nazis and misconstrue human-caused global heating as part of natural long-term cycles. In Idaho, students and educators are still fighting a years-long battle over the inclusion of the climate crisis in Idaho’s academic standards, after conservative lawmakers stripped mentions of it from the state’s science guidelines.

“Being a youth right now is really scary,” said Aster Chau, a 15-year-old student at Philadelphia’s Academy at Palumbo. “It’s really scary knowing that I’m underage, and can’t vote to elect the people making these big decisions about our futures, not having a say in that.”

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Chau, too, returned to class this year amid a late-summer heatwave – to a campus which, like many schools in Philadelphia, lacked air-conditioning throughout the building. Some of the district’s schools were dismissed early, and sports practices and games were cancelled. “It’s terrifying to be faced with this,” they said, knowing that cycles of extreme weather are predicted to become even more severe by the time they graduate.

To prepare for the fight ahead, about 150 high schoolers from across the US gathered in Illinois to attend a summer camp where they honed their activism, learning advocacy and escalation tactics.

A large circle of students of many races, all wearing T-shirts and shorts, stand on a grassy lawn, facing a young man in the middle - who could be one of them or perhaps a young adult, such as a camp leader - wearing a white T-shirt and bright blue shorts, pointing with his right hand and smiling as he speaks.
After living through the hottest summer on record, students returned to school this year amid heatwaves, wildfires and a tropical storm. Photograph: Heather Chen/Courtesy of Sunrise Movement

Later this week, hundreds of students will join Jamaal Bowman, a New York representative, and Ed Markey, the Massachusetts senator, in Washington DC, as the lawmakers reintroduce their Green New Deal for Public Schools Act. The legislation would provide funding to help schools expand and develop curricula, hire staff and retrofit campuses.

“We are definitely feeling the weight of the climate crisis,” Chau said. “I have had times when I was just overwhelmed with climate anxiety. But I guess being with one another is really helpful, knowing that I’m not just the only one who is feeling this pressure, but also extreme passion in fighting it.”

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