California has one of the most ambitious climate agendas of any state – with the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. In the 2022 budget signed last month by Governor Gavin Newsom, the state committed to allocating more than $39 billion new dollars over the next five years to help the state reach its 2045 climate goal. Together with last year’s commitments, this puts California on track to enact a historic $54 billion+ climate budget. This is, to put it mildly, a significant investment towards climate resilience and decreasing emissions in the state.
Yet, in the very same budget, the state has allocated $5.1 billion from the state’s General Fund and $1.4 billion from an existing school bond for school modernization and new school construction. With no additional direction from the legislature, this funding could be used to install new fossil fuel burning machines, some of which have lifespans of 30 years. To meet our climate goals, California should use every opportunity to make smart infrastructure investments across the board – not just as part of “climate” programs. This year’s budget has the opportunity to put our school buildings and grounds at the forefront of the climate effort, not working against it.
Our 10,000 K-12 schools — more than 730 million square feet of buildings on nearly 125,000 acres of land — comprise one of California’s largest sectors of public infrastructure and contribute over 1.6 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year. We have the opportunity to transform these facilities to run on clean energy, save money for school districts, and provide a safer and healthier learning and working environment for California’s kids and school employees.
California’s school buildings and grounds are not currently equipped to keep our children healthy and safe from the impacts of climate change – which includes more days of extreme heat, longer droughts, higher risks of deadly wildfires, more days of toxic wildfire smoke, and higher flood risks. In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 2,000 schools had nearly 5,000 total closure days due to natural disasters, unsafe conditions, and other emergencies, impacting 1.2 million students. Each lost day of learning can be measured in decreased student achievement in addition to worsening health impacts for children.
This is not a future problem to solve. We must plan now to align every dollar spent in K-12 infrastructure with building an equitable zero carbon future and ensure that our current actions work towards, and not against, the state’s 2045 goal. It is counterproductive and wasteful to spend billions of dollars on locking in decades of emissions from school infrastructure that relies on fossil fuels and further pollutes our environment.
That is why we are calling on the Governor and Legislature to act now to align school infrastructure investments with state climate goals and student health as they consider final budget trailer bills in August. They can also take the proactive step of allocating $25 million for development of a master plan for healthy, equitable, and climate-resilient school buildings and grounds, and to boost technical assistance to districts and schools. The master plan will help ensure that future state and local school infrastructure dollars, whether allocated in the legislative budget process or through a future school bond, are invested in alignment with the state’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality no later than 2045, the Climate Adaptation Strategy, and the Extreme Heat Action Plan.
Our budget surplus has given us a tremendous opportunity to align K-12 school infrastructure with our statewide climate goals. But we can’t stop there. Schools should lead the way in fostering new solutions to a growing problem. These goals are meant to lay the groundwork for paradigm shift toward climate-ready schooling. Schools are the places where we prepare the next generation to solve the world’s greatest challenges. It’s our responsibility to make sure students can continue to learn and grow in healthy environments that are prepared to face the realities of rapidly changing climate.
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Jonathan Klein is a California parent and co-founder of UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit working to support all K-12 schools in making an equitable transition to zero carbon emissions while preparing our youth to build a sustainable future in a rapidly changing climate.