Canadian schools ‘radically underestimated’ as climate action hubs

“The ripple effect of bold school climate action has huge potential as another climate change solution, if we tap into it," said Michèle Andrews, co-founder and executive director of  DoorNumberOne.

Will Grant, a facilitator associated with Project Drawdown, said “the urgency and momentum surrounding climate action is at the regional level”, and that schools and school boards are ideally positioned as “community actors” to participate. Adobe Stock photo by Matty Symons.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on March 6, 2024.

By Gaye Taylor

Addressing what it sees as a lack of climate leadership in the majority of Canada’s K-12 school boards, an Ontario organization aiming to promote comprehensive, nation-wide climate action in schools is hosting an “unconference” in Hamilton next month.

“Schools are the heart of their communities, with connections well beyond their students to the parents, grandparents, local businesses, and more,” says Michèle Andrews, co-founder and executive director of  DoorNumberOne, a registered charity that helps schools create climate plans. “The ripple effect of bold school climate action has huge potential as another climate change solution, if we tap into it.”

Everyone in the school community—board members, staff, teachers, students, and parents—can participate in DoorNumberOne’s Climate Action Accelerator Program (CAAP) once a school is signed up. A three-year commitment, the CAAP involves around 20 hours of workshops and 10 hours of mentoring each year.

So far, 20 independent (private) schools have enrolled, including 12 in Ontario, three in Quebec, three in British Columbia, and one each in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

School Boards Lag on Climate Action

“The potential of schools to be part of the climate solution is radically underestimated,” Andrews, who had a corporate career in organizational development and a decade of experience heading an independent pre-kindergarten school, told The Energy Mix.

Her sense that adults in leadership positions must step up to bring schools into the picture was sharpened by a 2023 review of public school boards across Canada. It found that only three public school boards across Canada have climate plans on the books, with a fourth on the way.

DoorNumberOne program advisors Dr. Ellen Field, assistant professor at the Lakehead University Faculty of Education, and Sidney Howlett, Master of Education candidate and research analyst at the same university, reviewed publicly-available information on school board websites to see how many of them had climate policies. “Of the 380 school boards in Canada, only three have published Climate Action Plans; Toronto District School Board (2010) and Trillium Lakelands District School Board (2020) in Ontario, and Richmond School District (2021) in British Columbia,” they found. B.C.’s Greater Victoria School District is poised to become the fourth, after unveiling a draft plan last June.

All four school boards demonstrate an “ambitious, holistic, and intergenerational approach to climate action” Field and Howlett say. Their climate action plans are situated “within broader institutional contexts, such as strategic plans or government policy, and aim to engage a variety of stakeholders, including administrators, operations staff, teachers, and students.”

The authors concluded that, “despite current and future challenges, such as inadequate funding, these four school boards demonstrate inspiring leadership and a strong commitment to a whole-institution approach to climate action, laying the groundwork for others to follow.”

The review also found numerous cases of motions being “proposed and/or endorsed, urging school boards to develop Climate Action Plans,” a pattern that indicates “an emerging trend among Canadian school boards to address climate change.”

Several other school boards have sustainability plans that mention climate change or reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: the Winnipeg School Division, the Edmonton School District, the Calgary Board of Education, the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE) in Ontario, the Burnaby School DistrictNanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools, and the Vancouver School Board. Another nine have strategic plans that similarly mention climate change or emissions, all of them in B.C. except for one in Renfrew County, Ontario.

But the presence of a strategic plan does not in itself indicate strong climate leadership, say Field and Howlett. In some cases, “shallow engagement, and an absence of specific and measurable targets, concrete initiatives, or holistic integration beyond awareness and education, is challenging the commitment of these school boards to take meaningful climate action.”

This is now untenable, they add. “We are past the point that leaders—in any organization—can decide not to take climate action within their institutions.”

Citing the warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that GHG emissions must be reduced 43 per cent by 2030 “to avoid massive loss and reduce the danger that we will pass tipping points that will lock in irreversible and catastrophic climate impacts,” Field and Howlett write: “The next seven years will be crucial in deciding how severe climate impacts will become and what quality of life future generations will experience.”

They echo insights from Will Grant, a facilitator associated with Project Drawdown, to note that “the urgency and momentum surrounding climate action is at the regional level”, and that schools and school boards are ideally positioned as “community actors” to participate. Provincial mandates are also important, they say, pointing out that school boards with climate action plans are predominantly in Ontario and B.C.—the only two provinces where some kind of climate reporting by school boards is mandatory.

‘Evidence-Based Hope’

Convinced that systemic climate action is rooted in hope, organizers at DoorNumberOne say it also hands children and youth a tool to manage the anxiety that can come with climate awareness. But pie-in-the-sky hope is meaningless—so CAAP promotes reality-based optimism by delivering students a dose of “hopeful news” on conservation, energy, fashion, food, waste, and water. Called “Announcements for Climate Hope,” the initiative is co-designed by Ulwiana Mehta-Malhotra, a final year student at Mulgrave School in West Vancouver, and Dr. Elin Kelsey, an expert in climate emotions and communication.

“The best thing I can do is take positive action using what is available,” 17-year old Mehta-Malhotra told The Mix, responding to a question on how she combats climate despair. “I always recommend that people use their own skills and their own interests in their climate efforts.” She added that her own passion for organizing and sharing ideas and a friend’s interest in technology design led them to develop an app that tracks the lights at their school and reminds teachers to turn them off.

But real hope is hard work, “requiring us to look truth in the eye,” Kelsey says in her 2020 book, Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis.

“We must look at the planetary crisis as realistically as humanly possible, and then open ourselves up to be surprised,” she writes. “We must act with our best intentions and efforts, in response to the most accurate knowledge, all the while accepting that we cannot know exactly what will unfold, now or in the future. Hope exists in the possibility of transformation.”

Kelsey told The Mix that hope is a deliberate “stance” taken in relation to the world. She added that a sense of wonder can be an antidote to the fatalism that drives the dominant narrative of “climate doomism.”

The principles in Kelsey’s book have likely been “the most powerful inspiration” for school teams, Andrews said, noting that every CAAP workshop sets aside time to share stories of hope. “It is an intentional practice that keeps us going despite all the negativity in the news.”

Lack of Capacity And Resources

Andrews said “hope-filled, whole-school climate action” practices and learnings will be the focus of DoorNumberOne’s “unconference” in April, named for its focus on participant-centred collaboration through workshops and discussions. The event will be as climate-friendly as possible, with its carbon footprint closely tracked. The group may pursue carbon offsets, she added, but only “after careful consideration of all the pros and cons and pitfalls of such decisions.”

The conference is hosted by two independent schools in Hamilton, since private schools are currently the only CAAP participants. The cost of the program—ranging from C$4,500 to $8,500 per year—makes it difficult for public schools to join without school board support. Andrews said CAAP is setting up a sponsorship fund to make it easier for schools to participate, regardless of their ability to pay. They’ve started a wait list for schools that want to get involved.

Acknowledging that independent schools have resources and autonomy far beyond the public system, Andrews said current CAAP schools are conscious of their privilege, and are actively seeking to become climate action leaders “in order to share it, so others don’t have to go through the same learning curve.”

But “whole-school climate action” isn’t easy, even with an abundance of resources, because it is so capacity-intensive, Andrews noted. Recalling a recent Ontario Today episode about school staffing shortages, she pointed to the need for a wholesale shift in values.

“We’re trying to ask people to take climate action—they can’t even cover recess,” she said. “Schools are in such a rough spot, and that’s a whole other angle on the need for systemic change.”

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