School Social Workers Can Be Powerful Advocates for Climate Justice (Part 1)
PART I: Climate Anxiety, Climate Neglect, and Breaking Climate Silence
Climate Anxiety in the Classroom
One sunny afternoon in May, 2019 the faint smell of smoke brought all activity in my 6th grade class to a halt. Several students jumped out of their seats and moved to the windows scanning the horizon for signs of fire. Others laughed nervously. “I think I’m having PTSD,” announced Simon, a bright, thoughtful student. He likely was. Just 18 months earlier Simon and his family had been woken up in the middle of the night as a wall of flames advanced on their neighborhood. He and his family escaped safely, but for the next three days, they waited anxiously to learn the fate of their home. Although his house was spared, thousands of nearby homes burned. More than 1200 students in Sonoma county lost their homes in the climate-related Tubb’s fire.
I teach at a small K-8 public school in rural western Sonoma County. In the past two years all of my students have experienced the effects of four climate-related disasters. In addition to the devastation my students witnessed during the Tubb’s Fire (October, 2017), they also suffered extremely hazardous air quality from the Mendocino (July/August of 2018) and Paradise firestorms (November of 2018). And a winter storm in February of 2019, supercharged with moisture and energy as a result of increased temperatures, brought torrential rains and severe flooding that closed school and damaged hundreds of homes, including the homes of students in our class. School has been cancelled three times for a total of 10 days due to climate-related disasters in the past two years alone. Each new climate disaster triggers memories and anxieties from previous ones, as did the smell of smoke wafting in through my classroom windows last May.
Fortunately, in May the smell of smoke was from the school garden’s pizza oven and not a wildfire. In the short-term, my students were safe and secure. Unfortunately, in the long-term, my students, like all American young people, will bear a significant lifetime climate burden. For example, given our current rate of emissions and the link between increased heat and fires, scientists predict that the severity of fires in California will only increase. If we don’t address our emissions problem, millions of our students will be exposed to potentially traumatic disasters made more frequent or more severe by unmitigated climate change.
It is not too late to quickly limit our fossil fuel emissions protecting young people and future generations from the worst-case climate scenarios. We still have a small window of action. Schools, municipalities, companies, and states across the country are taking climate action, improving sustainability and cutting emissions. In addition, the non-partisan Schools for Climate Action (S4CA) campaign is helping school districts respond to the climate crisis by building non-partisan will for climate action, especially national climate action. Currently, climate silence from the education sector inadvertently contributes to a dynamic of climate neglect by Congress. School social workers, as both educators and mental health professionals, are well poised to break climate silence with the S4CA campaign and help protect all US students and future generations. Read on to learn more about climate neglect and the importance of clearly articulating the will for national climate action.
Congress’ Legacy of Climate Neglect
Congress, the organization with the power to take the biggest steps towards a carbon-neutral and climate-healthy future, has yet to treat climate change as the crisis science shows that it is. For more than three decades Congress has had a clear, scientific explanation of the causes of climate change and the consequences of inaction. For more than three decades, Congress has had a wide range of common sense climate policy solutions to avert the dire climate situation we now face. For more than three decades, Congress has simply chosen not to act.
This Congressional inaction has contributed significantly to conditions which now expose millions of American children, including my students, to unhealthy, dangerous, and potentially traumatic conditions each year. With its three decades legacy of climate inaction, Congress has committed an act of wholesale child neglect. A toxic peer-culture entrenched within a powerful subset of Congress has promoted unscientific climate views and made it socially acceptable and psychologically comfortable for Senators and Representatives to perpetrate this climate neglect on all of our students and future generations.
Educators and Medical Professionals Can Help Interrupt The Dynamic of Climate Neglect with Clear Signals to Congress
Fortunately, as educators and as mandated reporters, we have tremendous power to speak up to help interrupt the dynamic of climate neglect which threatens our students. Since we stand, in our official capacity, at the interface between the generations, we understand in granular detail all of the ways that climate neglect has negatively impacted young people and schools—the most important public institution nurturing young people. With this unique perspective comes a responsibility to provide an “intervention” to Congress, so that Congress receives accurate feedback about the full consequences of their climate inaction. The Schools for Climate Action campaign was launched in 2017 to provide schools a tool to speak up for climate justice in a non-partisan, but powerful way. By passing and delivering climate action resolutions, students, teachers, school board members, school social workers, parents and other members of school communities can send a clear, powerful message that Congress must act on climate to protect young people.
School social workers, as both educators and health care professionals, are uniquely poised to energize this campaign. So far, over 101 education sector organizations in 12 states have passed climate action resolutions with the S4CA campaign. And in June, more than 70 state and national medical organizations issued a call-to-climate-action detailing the negative equity and health impacts of our national climate neglect. There are more than 75,000 education sector organizations in the US. With the help of school social workers and school social work associations, we expect that call for climate action from the education sector could become overwhelming!
The Norm of Climate Silence in the Education Sector
Unfortunately, over the past four years, we have uncovered a strong social norm for education leaders and organization to be silent about climate change and climate neglect. We believe this pattern perpetuates and enables climate neglect by Congress. But, we also believe, because this pattern is so incongruent with our core shared values, that we can end it quickly. Instead of enabling climate neglect, the education sector can quickly become a leading, non-partisan voice to help end climate neglect.
What Climate Silence Looks Like
To understand why it is so important for educators and education organizations as every scale speak up for climate justice, we can consider concrete examples of education sector climate silence. Here are three important examples:
- Education Sector Climate Silence: National Association of School Boards (NSBA)
In March of 2019, the NSBA (representing all 90,000 school board members in the country) had an opportunity to provide clear feedback to Congress about the negative impacts of climate change on “America’s schools, students, and communities.” Instead, a last minute revision stripped the resolution of all mention of climate change, turning it into a “natural disaster resolution” instead. It appears that the NSBA was carefully choosing words so as not to make Members of Congress most responsible for climate neglect (or their supporters) uncomfortable. A similar pattern of silent witnessing has helped perpetuate other harmful dynamics of widespread neglect, abuse, or oppression in the US and elsewhere in the past century.
- Education Sector Climate Silence: California School Boards Association (CSBA)
In June of 2018, a School for Climate Action youth-adult team met with a senior staffer for the CSBA, hoping that they would speak up for climate justice with a non-partisan climate action resolution. The CSBA represents nearly 1,000 school boards and just 7 months earlier more than 1200 CA students had lost their homes and hundreds of thousands missed school due to a climate-related disaster. We asked if the CSBA had a program to measure climate impacts on CA schools and students. The staffer replied that the CSBA did not and if they did they could not “call it that” because the words “climate change” were considered “too controversial around here.” Here is more information about the “polite silence” from the CSBA.
- Education Sector Climate Silence: National Association of School Psychologists
In March of 2019, parents, students, and teachers with the S4CA campaign attempted to schedule an outreach meeting with the Executive Director of the NASP. She declined to meet with us because NASP does not consider climate change to be an issue with a “very direct” impact on “schools. . .student learning. . .or children’s mental health.” Plenty of peer-reviewed research, school closure records, and the first-hand experience of millions of students and teachers impacted by climate disaster suggest otherwise. The California Association of School Psychologists passed a strong climate action resolution the same month.
Each of these three groups lobby Congress every year, advocating for policies that are good for US schools and young people. They are some of the leading voices in the country educating members of Congress about what is good for schools and students. None of these groups has sent any signals to any Member of Congress that decades of climate neglect have any impact whatsoever on US schools and students. Of the 75,000 local, regional, state, and national education sector organizations in the country, only about 200 education sector organizations have spoken up for national climate action (more than half as a result of our campaign). School social workers can quickly amplify call for climate action from the education sector.
How We Can Advocate For Climate Justice: A SSWN Top 5
Here are five fast, concrete steps you can take to amplify the call for national climate action from the education sector:
- Follow and retweet the S4CA Twitter account
- Email your local, county, and state boards of education asking them to join the 50+ school boards in 8 states that have already passed climate action resolutions
- Edit this same email and send it to your regional, state, and national school social workers associations asking them to pass non-partisan climate action resolutions
- Share this Student Council Resolution Toolkit with teachers and students at your school and across your school district
- Gather a youth-adult team from your district and join us in DC in June 2020 for the Youth and Educator Climate Advocacy Days on Capitol Hill. S4CA teams will deliver education sector climate action resolutions to all 541 Congressional offices and hold meetings with as many Members or Congressional staffers as possible. Many teams will travel to DC via train. For more info, please fill in this form: S4CA June 2020 Climate Advocacy Summit Interest Form.
Thanks for reading and for all your work for schools and kids.
For more information about the Schools for Climate Action campaign, please contact:
- Park Guthrie, S4CA Co-Founder and 6th Grade Teacher
- [email protected]
- Jonah Gottlieb, S4CA Director and 12th Grade Student
- [email protected]ction.org
- Kimberly Gutzler, National Childrens’ Campaign Founder and S4CA Advisory Board Member
- [email protected]