Young climate activists have skipped school to demand urgent climate action across the globe. In Portland, Ore., they’ve pushed for a change inside the classroom too, calling for the standard curriculum to address how climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.
The city’s school board passed a resolution in 2016 — responding to calls from students, teachers and community members — pledging to develop a curriculum tackling what has become known as “climate justice.”
In May, nearly three years after the unanimous passage of the measure, students and teachers told the school board it wasn’t doing enough to implement promised standards. In the fall, Portland Public Schools hired a first-of-its-kind administrator to lead the effort, and is now working to developing a climate justice curriculum for all the district’s K-12 classrooms by 2022.
The push comes at a time when state leaders are taking broader climate action. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) issued an executive order on Tuesday to set aggressive reduction targets for the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, ordering state agencies to make it a priority and circumventing the state’s Republican lawmakers who fled the Oregon State Capitol twice in a year to avoid a vote on a climate change bill.
Nationally, federal lawmakers and past and present 2020 Democratic hopefuls are including environmental justice in proposed legislation and in campaign agendas. That reflects a growing desire to consider the effects of climate change on the disadvantaged, such as low-income people who might not be able to rebuild after an extreme weather event like a hurricane or the higher concentration of people of color living in in hotter or more polluted neighborhoods.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has pushed a Green New Deal, wants to “ensure justice for frontline communities.” Former vice president Joe Biden’s environmental plan seeks to prioritize “community-driven approaches to develop solutions for environmental injustices.” Before ending their presidential bids, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and billionaire activist Tom Steyer touted justice-centered environmental plans. On Capitol Hill, Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) last month introduced a bill seeking to tackle the way environmental issues like air and water pollution disproportionately affect low-income communities, tribal and indigenous communities, and communities of color.
Eugene Cordero, a professor at San Jose State University, said education can provide its own solutions to the climate crisis. In a study published last month, Cordero and fellow researchers found students who took the university’s climate change course changed their habits and had smaller individual carbon footprints — a reduction of 2.86 tons of carbon per year.
“Our research shows that you can have an impact, and it’s not small,” Cordero said. “It’s just as impactful as other well-established climate change mitigation plans.”
Not everyone agrees with this approach. The Trump administration has rolled back a number of environmental regulations designed to mitigate climate change. And it proposed gutting funding for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Justice.
In Portland, Tim Swinehart, a teacher at Lincoln High School, said lessons about the communities hit hardest by climate change should be taught in every school. He wants climate education to go further than what’s currently required in the Next Generation Science Standards, adopted by 20 states, including Oregon, to improve science education.
“I think we risk disempowering students if where we stop is just a solid scientific understanding of the climate crisis,” he said.
While the district works to develop these standards, Swinehart is already talking about environmental justice with his students, including teaching a class on the subject for the past four years.
Sriya Chinnam, an 18-year-old senior at Lincoln who has taken Swinehart’s course, described “learning about environmental racism, about what it means to be an environmentalist in the age of the climate justice movement and how that looks different for various people.”
Swinehart’s classes, she said, “have helped me connect social justice to economic injustice, and racial justice into a larger umbrella of climate justice. And on an emotional level, as a woman of color in white-dominant spaces, I’ve been able to see myself represented in the curriculum, and it has empowered me in ways that most of my classes haven’t empowered me.”
Chinnam, who was a member of a hiring committee that chose Nichole Berg to be the school district’s climate change and climate justice programs manager, said she wants students beyond her “racially and economically privileged” high school to have access to the same lessons.
Berg said the district is working on creating a “common framework” to address climate justice in science and social studies classes in some way at all grade levels.
“The science can offer the understanding of the root causes of climate change: How does it occur? How do you remediate it?” she said. “…The social studies is really about who in our community is being disproportionately impacted by decisions, by infrastructure being built or not being built.”
By starting in kindergarten and continuing through high school, Berg said they can “start early with things like ‘You can make a difference, you can do things,’ to alleviate the sense of climate depression, climate anxiety young people are facing… and to help them see themselves as change-makers.”
She praised the work of students who are behind — and are meant to benefit from — the effort. “I’m really excited about the way our youth are channeling their voices now on social media; engaging in their own communities, rallying to support political leaders, education leaders; holding us accountable,” she said. “We need them to help solve these problems — they know what they need.”
Advocates pushing for the climate justice curriculum have challenged some parts of the district’s approach. Portland General Electric has contributed $250,000 over three years to help fund its development. In a February letter to supporters, the Portland Public Schools Climate Justice Committee said it opposes the utility’s involvement, citing the need to end reliance on fossil fuels as part of tackling climate change. Berg acknowledged the concerns about PGE’s involvement but said the utility won’t have influence over the curriculum.
Chinnam, who is involved in the Sunrise Movement’s local Portland chapter, also questioned having a single framework for every school in the district, despite their various socioeconomic profiles.
“In Portland, it may seem like we’re ahead of the curve on the climate crisis, but we have further to go,” Chinnam said. “…But people are especially listening to youth right now, and they should be.”
Suzie Kassouf, an organizer with SunrisePDX and a student-teacher in Lincoln’s environmental justice course, said including the subject as part of standard curriculum allows educators to “connect with so many youth, get them actually involved with the political process and the social movement.”
She sees that as one goal of a climate justice-focused standard: “If the curriculum isn’t pushing students to become more active, involved and aware, it’s not working.”
— Bernie Sanders’s climate record: In his three decades in elected office, Sanders has deployed an “all-or-nothing approach” in his advocacy, sometimes forgoing efforts for short-term progress on climate, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports.
- His approach to climate change signals his presidential campaign strategy: “Sanders has viewed global warming as a top priority for years, pressing for major cuts in the nation’s emissions of greenhouse gases and a switch from fossil fuels to wind, solar and other renewables,” Eilperin writes. “…While he’s occasionally found common ground with like-minded Democrats, he has often rejected incremental steps toward potentially durable, bipartisan compromise.”
- Sanders has pulled the party left on climate: “Nearly every major 2020 candidate — including Biden — has called for steeper carbon cuts than President Barack Obama endorsed and has backed the idea of banning all new oil and gas drilling on public lands and offshore. But it also raises questions of how [Sanders] would enact sweeping policies to curb carbon emissions if he occupied the Oval Office,” she adds.
— As the White House talks about an economic stimulus amid the coronavirus fallout, lawmakers are also discussing separate issues they can address alongside any financial aid package.
- Infrastructure: Bipartisan lawmakers are calling for a measure to address the nation’s infrastructure. “Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) first floated the idea during a luncheon meeting Tuesday with President Trump,” E&E News reports. “His call was echoed yesterday by both Democrats and Republicans who remain keen on modernizing the country's aging network of roads and bridges.”
- Climate: Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists are pushing for climate change measures in response to the Trump administration’s talk about “steering money toward several carbon-intensive industries that have been financially hurt by the global outbreak,” per E&E. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said if “they want to bail out the airline industry, then the airline industry better damn well be ready to clean up its act in terms of carbon emissions offsets.” He said he would look to include carbon offsets as part of any economic stimulus for such industries.
— The ongoing impact on emissions: The spread of covid-19 may teach scientists about “everyday human behaviors, their response to large-scale disasters, and their carbon footprints,” E&E News reports.
- A domino effect: “Pull one string here, and it affects everything else,” said Christopher Jones, a University of California at Berkeley climate policy expert. “With the economy and carbon footprints, they're so interrelated that you really quickly start to have all these complex interactions.”
— Senate confirms Trump’s FERC pick: The chamber voted 52 to 40 to confirm James Danly to be a Republican commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
- The vote: Three Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Doug Jones (Ala.) — joined Republicans in voting to approve Danly.
- More to know: “The FERC, an independent office of the Department of Energy that regulates interstate transmission of electricity and natural gas and oil, now has a 3-1 Republican majority,” Reuters reports. “…Several Democrats have said Danly’s nomination has been politicized by the Trump administration as it was not accompanied by a Democratic nomination. The Trump administration has tried to push FERC in the past to help subsidize aging coal and nuclear plants.”
— Lawmakers improve on environmental scorecard: The League of Conservation Voters's annual assessment of environmental voting praised Democrats, although the new scorecard included improvements for both parties, the Hill reports.
- The details: Republicans in both chambers had an average score of less than 13 percent out of 100, compared with an 8 percent average in 2018. Meanwhile, House Democrats improved from 90 percent in 2018 to approximately 95 percent in 2019. And Senate Democrats and Democratic-caucusing independents held at about 95 percent.
- To quote: Tiernan Sittenfeld, the organization’s senior vice president of government affairs, said even with the improvement, the “13 percent average score for Republicans is shameful and a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of them utterly failed to support common-sense environmental protections again in 2019.”
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources is scheduled to hold a field hearing on “Oil and Gas Development in California: The Need to Protect Public Health and the Environment” on March 19.
— Today in cloud sightings: “A remarkable ‘roll cloud’ spun overhead [in Omaha] early Thursday morning, stretching from horizon to horizon and spanning some 160 miles,” The Post's Matthew Cappucci writes.