Park Guthrie is a teacher in Northern California and the founder of Schools for Climate Action, a grassroots group whose mission is to encourage schools to advocate for climate justice. Park has written a series of compelling blog posts that inspires all of us to take action in support of climate justice. Here is Part II of this important message!
BREAK THE SILENCE. EMPOWER YOUR SCHOOL TO SPEAK UP FOR CLIMATE ACTION.
PART II: Education Sector Silence Inadvertently Enables Climate Neglect by Congress
As with any dynamic of neglect or abuse, silence from witnesses is one of the key mechanisms that perpetuates the harmful cycle. In families with substance abuse issues, well-intentioned but silent witnesses inadvertently enable the dynamic of abuse which then creates potentially traumatic conditions for children. For example, an alcoholic may tell him or herself that their drinking does not affect his or her children; powerful perceptual filters and a distorted worldview prop up this inaccurate construct within the abusers’ mind. In family systems which maintain a silence about the alcohol abuse, the silence itself serves to validate these inaccurate beliefs held by the alcoholic: “If my behavior were really so harmful, wouldn’t I be hearing more about it from my loved ones?” Silence from witnesses prevents feedback loops that would otherwise undermine this distorted worldview maintained by the abuser. Silence is an important, sometimes necessary, mechanism in the dynamic of substance abuse and child neglect.
Similarly, silence from witnesses may be a necessary mechanism in the dynamic of Congressional climate neglect, a form of child neglect. There are only about 150 Members of Congress most responsible for our national inaction on climate. These Members of Congress certainly do not believe themselves to be instruments of climate harm to young people and future generations. But, like all people, these Members of Congress have powerful perceptual filters that block or minimize data and worldviews which threaten their own self-image and tribal identity. These Members of Congress curate a distorted worldview which delegitimizes mainstream climate science. They have peers and staffers who share and prop up this worldview. This distorted worldview allows them to simultaneously perceive themselves as champions for young people and protectors of our country while at the same time actively blocking common sense action to protect young people, future generations, and our nation from significant climate harm. According to our best available science, it is a fantastical world in which a politician can act in the best long-term interests of young people and future generations while also delaying action on climate change. This is the fantastical world which exists within in the minds of about 150 Members of Congress and their staffers. It is this fantastical world view that protects these Members of Congress from the full consequences of their actions, perpetuating their inaction and delay. It is a worldview that has almost never been challenged by the millions of stakeholders most focused on those who will bear the greatest burden of the climate neglect—-the education sector. We have inadvertently condoned this worldview and the neglect it leads to with our silence.
An alcoholic father rarely intends to harm his own children even though many of his actions do just that; proud climate deniers like Senator James Inhofe or Representatives Tom McClintock or Doug LaMalfa do not intend to expose generations to climate harm even though their inactions and active obstruction do exactly that. Silence from witnesses makes those responsible for neglect—-alcoholic parents or climate-denying politicians——more successful at filtering out information that would force them to better understand the real consequences of their behavior. Silence enables the neglect.
Nearly Complete Climate Silence from Education Sector
Education sector silence about climate neglect has been nearly absolute. We know this two ways.
First, we have spoken to scores of Congressional offices. They have told us that education leaders have never engaged them on climate change. Dozens of education sector organizations (school boards associations, school nurse associations, school psychologist associations, teachers’ unions, parent-teachers associations, etc.) speak with Congressional offices and state legislators regularly. These education associations regularly advocate or lobby for policies which benefit schools and young people. These associations educate Congressional offices about the many ways that many Congressional decisions impact schools and young people. Until our campaign started, there was almost no mention of climate change in any conversation between educators and Congressional offices, even though climate change is the single greatest issue all of our students will need to confront.
The Schools for Climate Action campaign has had meetings with more than 40 Members of Congress or their staffers in the past two years. Before our campaign engaged them, none of these Congressional offices had ever heard directly from a school board member or any educational leader about the negative impacts of climate change on schools or young people. The silence on climate change and Congressional climate neglect from the education sector is powerful.
Second, we have looked extensively online for any statements by any school boards or education associations about climate change. Rarely does the word climate change appear in education sector documents; even more rarely does a school board member or education organization describe climate change as an issue affecting students. (Note: Two inspiring exceptions are the California PTA resolution of 2015 declaring climate change a “childrens’ issue” and multiple strong American Federation of Teachers climate change resolutions dating back to at least 2012. Unfortunately, the Members of Congress we spoke with were unfamiliar with these resolutions.)
There are 90,000 school board members across the country. These are the only elected politicians with a singular focus on young people. They lead an institution grounded in science and focused on creating great future outcomes for young people. Presumably, at least sixty thousand of these school board members understand and accept the scientific consensus that climate inaction will lead to devastating outcomes for young people. When we began our campaign in 2017, we could find only about 30 out of 90,000 school board members who had officially spoken up and described climate change as a children’s issue or as an issue that local, state, and federal government policies should address in order to protect young people. This is near absolute silence from the elected community leaders across the country who are the most focused on young people. It is difficult to imagine that this silence has not contributed significantly to perpetuating the unscientific worldviews which allow Congress to neglect our climate. Imagine if fifty to sixty thousand community leaders had called out the climate neglect by Congress in order to defend the young people they are committed to serve.
Vocal and proud Congressional supporters of unscientific climate dogma like Tom McClintock or his staffer Steve Koncar can easily look to the education sector to validate their distorted, unscientific worldviews. They might think to themselves, “If this climate change thing were really such a big deal, wouldn’t I have heard about it by now from at least some of the teachers, school psychologists, school nurses, principals, or school board members who stand officially at the interface between the generations, the people whose entire professional focus is creating great future outcomes for kids? If these folks don’t see climate change as an issue for young people, then likely it’s just the radical environmentalist who think it’s a problem.”
Vicious Cycle: The Longer We Wait, the Harder It is to Break Silence and the Greater the Damage is Done
Coming to terms with climate neglect is not easy. The fact that it has persisted so long and that we now face such a severe crisis makes it even harder to deal with psychologically. One of the most paradoxical dynamics of neglect and abuse holds true with Congressional climate neglect: the more terrible and disturbing the reality, the easier it may be for witnesses, perpetrators, and even survivors to construct and choose an alternate, fictitious worldview. Because the reality is simply too painful and too disturbing to observe directly, we all have psychological incentives to put on “rose-colored lenses” that shield us from the world-as-it-is. Paradoxically, the worse the climate crisis becomes and the more neglectful our national climate inaction appears, the more difficult it is to publicly and consciously see it as such.
This dynamic is one reason why the child sex abuse scandal was able to fester for so long within the Catholic Church. Horrified bystanders simply did not value their own legitimate suspicions because the conclusions seemed too terrible to bear. We see this pattern at the family scale as well. Parents often go to great lengths to misinterpret or ignore clear evidence of their children’s drug abuse because facing the truth about the abuse seems too painful. With drug abuse as with climate neglect, ignoring the problem can defer some of the short-term psychological pain involved in addressing the problem head on. In the short-term, subscribing to alternative explanations for evidence of abuse or neglect protects our sense of identity; accepting that abuse or neglect is taking place threatens closely-held sense of identity, even if we are just witnesses.
As a result, it is natural for education leaders to distrust their instinct that Congressional climate inaction is a form of neglect. It is natural to minimize the situation or to resist open, honest talk about climate neglect. It is painful to accept that highly regarded elected officials like Members of Congress would perpetrate generational climate neglect for more than three decades. How could this system of government we trust so much produce such reckless disregard for the values and for the young people we hold most dear? How could Congress have refused to take simple, commonsense steps twenty ago to head off the dire climate situation in which we now find ourselves? “Surely, Congress would not have knowingly perpetrated such neglect on my students for more than three decades. Surely the crisis is overblown or too complex for Congress to have acted upon. It is not my place to speak up about something so complex or so political,” education leaders like NSBA or NASP directors might be thinking.
The video “Textbook Trauma” featuring climate scientists Drs. Sara Myhre and Jeffrey Kiehl gives further insight into the challenges education leaders might face publicly coming to terms with climate neglect. Drs. Myhre and Kiehl each describe the trauma reactions their adult audiences display when presented with objective climate data. Just a factual summary of climate science and climate trends is enough to trigger dissociation, denial, and detachment in their audiences. In other words, our climate reality is so dire and disturbing that our mind subconsciously treats this information about it as an existential threat, triggering a traumatic response which may prevent us from consciously holding and valuing this objective information.
It is little wonder, then, that politicians who have played an outsized role in perpetrating climate neglect on younger generations have developed robust psychological defenses preventing them from assimilating accurate information about the consequences of their climate denial and delay. It is little wonder, then, that education leaders prefer to focus more narrowly on issues strictly under their direct institutional control. What should be a fast, straightforward task of joining a non-partisan call for national climate action (something that should be totally uncontroversial from within the framework of education sector beliefs and values), seems to burdensome and time consuming to some education leaders. Education leaders have real psychological incentives to avoid speaking up about climate justice because doing so requires the painful and heartbreaking step of coming to terms with just how neglectful our national actions have been. Doing so requires us to re-evaluate our sense of national identity and as well as the psychological context of hope and empowerment we work so hard to provide our young people. It is no wonder that some education leaders and organizations like the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the National School Boards Association (NSBA) are having difficulty responding to the climate crisis in a way that aligns with our shared institutional values. Just as within abusive family systems, the more unpleasant and heartbreaking the truth, the more inertia there is to maintain the dynamic of abuse. But with both drug abuse and climate neglect, the longer we wait to confront the issue openly and honestly, the more damage is done. It truly is a vicious cycle.
Fortunately, as with abusive and neglectful family systems, sometimes the most powerful and important single step is simple truth-telling. Breaking silence and having hard, honest conversations can generate a shift both in enablers, abusers, and survivors. Enablers, abusers, and survivors alike can gain new perspectives and chart a path to a healthier future. School nurses, like teachers, students, school psychologists, and school board members can play an important role in initiating hard, honest climate conversations with their local school communities and with state and national education organizations. Proposing a non-partisan S4CA climate action resolution at a union, school board, student council, or PTA meeting is the perfect way to broach this difficult but important topic.
Prominent National Education Organizations Still Choose Climate Silence in 2019, Even After 2+ Years of Massive Climate Impacts on Kids and Schools
Unfortunately, even as recently as the spring of this year, prominent national education sector associations were still actively choosing to maintain a culture of silence related to national climate neglect. In March of 2019, the National School Boards Association (NSBA), representing all 14,000 school boards across the country, considered a strong climate action resolution proposed by the Pacific Region directors of the NSBA. This resolution would have provided the entire NSBA an opportunity to speak up assertively to help move Congress to act on climate change. But in an Orwellian move, the Florida delegation revised the climate action resolution to strip it of all mention of climate change. They turned it into a “natural disaster” resolution instead, effectively shielding climate denial and delay in Congress. Please read the screenshot below to fully appreciate the impact of these edits:
Here is another example of a national education association inadvertently distorting the information stream about climate impacts on kids to Congress. In March of 2019, parents, students, and teachers with the S4CA campaign attempted to schedule an outreach meeting with the Executive Director of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). She declined to meet with us because she does not consider climate change to be an issue with a “very direct” impact on schools, “student learning” or “children’s mental health”. As a classroom teacher who has witnessed significant climate impacts on my school, my students’ learning, and my students’ mental health, it is difficult to understand how such an important organization like the NASP does not also see the very direct impacts of climate change. Fo example, in a single week in November of 2018, 18% of all California students, or more than 1 million students, had school cancelled due to climate-related fires and hazardous air quality. Surely, this is an example of a very direct and significant climate impact on schools and student learning. It seems patently obvious. Anyone who cared to consider this fact would understand the link. During that same week, nearly every student in Paradise High School lost their home in the climate-related Camp Fire. Surely, it seems obvious that this school and these students have suffered a very direct mental health impact as a result of a climate-related disaster. Had the ED of NASP agreed to meet with us, we would have shared information about these climate impacts on schools, student learning, or children’s mental health. Had members of the NASP been attuned to abundant evidence of climate impacts on schools and children and had they shared this information with their leadership, they could have discovered these links without our input. The NASP does not need to rely on the anecdotal experience of millions of teachers and schoolchildren who have experienced climate disasters in the past several years. Research shared by NASP itself clearly details the negative impact of natural disasters on schools, student learning, and children’s mental health. Scores more studies show a direct link between climate change and increased severity and frequency of natural disasters. It seems that the NASP is not seeing the link between climate change and students because their individual and organizational biases and perceptual filters prevent them from seeing it, not because the link does not exist. Like parents, too heartbroken to acknowledge their child’s drug abuse, the NASP and the NSBA seem to be going to great lengths to ignore clear evidence of Congressional climate neglect.
Many education leaders, like family members of alcoholics, seem to struggle to be honest with themselves about the dynamic of climate neglect because the unvarnished truth appears too painful to bear. While this difficulty in coming to terms with climate impacts and climate neglect is understandable, as professionals committed to both our sector and our students, we can all—students, parents, teachers, school nurses, school psychologists, and school board members—-clearly articulate to our leaders and to our professional organizations that we can all do better by our students. We have tremendous power to speak up and speaking up will indeed help Congress do right by our kids on climate. The education sector, like the medical sector, can speak up together with one voice to help end climate neglect by Congress.
Educators Breaking Silence About Climate Neglect
Fortunately, scores of educators and education organizations have already led the way. As mandated reporters, bound by law and duty to speak up to when they witness child neglect, more than 55 school boards along with 43 other education sector organizations (student councils, PTAs, teacher’s unions, etc.) have already passed non-partisan climate action resolutions. Rather than protect climate neglect with their silence, these organizations and their leaders are responding assertively to the entrenched pattern of Congressional climate neglect. And, as with alcoholic family systems, breaking silence and speaking difficult truths shifts paradigms and recalcitrant patterns of behavior in a powerful way. Breaking silence is a powerful first step towards generating positive solutions.
Caption: Alice Deal Middle School students preparing to deliver non-partisan climate action resolutions from the education sector to Members of Congress in June, 2019. Just as with any dynamic of neglect, adult-child roles are often reversed. In this case, middle school students take on the “adult” role of trying to convince Members of Congress to make rational and responsible decisions according to the best available climate science. However, many Members of Congress and their staffers still cling to a fantastical, almost childlike worldview in which they can act in the best interests of children and our country while minimizing or ignoring the climate crisis.
In the past 18 months, the S4CA campaign has collected nearly 100 climate action resolutions from education sector organizations twelve states and the District of Columbia. We have also secured resolutions from three state and national education sector organizations:
+The National Black Council of School Board Members, representing thousands of school board members across the country
+The California Association of School Psychologists, representing thousands of school psychologists across the state of California
+The California Association of Student Councils representing 6.3 million California students
Despite our successes, there are still nearly 75,000 school boards, student councils, PTAs, educators’ unions, and other education sector organizations that still remain silent in the face of national climate neglect. These organizations, all committed to creating great outcomes for young people and all grounded in mainstream science, inadvertently contribute to the dynamic of Congressional climate neglect by maintaining this climate justice silence. This, in turn, undermines their missions, contradicts their shared values, and threatens their most important stakeholders.
School nurses are uniquely poised to spread the S4CA campaign to their local school boards, PTAs, and student councils. School nurses can also quickly empower their regional, state, and national school nurses associations to pass their own climate action resolutions. If the National Association of School Nurses or the California Association of School Nurses were to pass a strong climate action resolution, it would set an example that many other state school nurses associations could quickly follow. It would also likely set an example that the leadership of NASP and NSBA and other reluctant national education sector organizations would follow.
The notion of the education sector speaking up together to help end climate neglect should not seem far-fetched or fanciful. The medical sector has done just this. What should seem far-fetched and contradictory to our shared values is to stand by as silent witnesses while our federal government refuses to respond to the climate crisis in a way that protects our students. This silent witnessing should be what is difficult to imagine, not the notion that tens of thousands of youth-serving organizations would speak up together to move Congress to end the neglect.
Right now, within the education sector, there is a peer norm among leaders to remain silent about Congressional climate neglect. As with any issue of peer norms, leadership by just a small number of courageous, outspoken peers can shift the public norms dramatically. The National School Nurses Association could be the organization which empowers the entire education sector to speak up, like the medical sector has, to help end climate neglect by Congress. As individual school nurses, you can edit and send a simple email to help empower your local, state, and national associations to take this courageous stand. Many of our S4CA resolutions are a result of a single email from a concerned stakeholder to a school board or governing board member.
Youth-adult teams with S4CA deliver resolutions to Congress several times a year. Our next resolution delivery day will be in mid-September. Resolutions from local, state, or national school nurse associations would greatly magnify our call-to-action and play an important role in ending climate neglect by Congress. We also need help securing more local school board, student council, and PTA resolutions. If you cannot get resolutions passed by mid-September, it is still worth starting the process by September. Thanks to global climate strikes in mid-September, the issue of climate neglect and climate action will resonate greatly. If you start your resolution process by September, we can include your passed resolutions when S4CA youth-adult teams return to Congress in the spring of 2020.
Caption: Schools for Climate Action advocates delivering resolutions to members of Congress in March, 2019
Thanks for reading and for all your work for schools and kids.
Here are four fast, concrete steps you can take to amplify the call for national climate action:
- 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 nurse’s associations asking them to pass climate action resolutions
- Share this Student Council Resolution Toolkit with teachers and students at your school
For more information about the Schools for Climate Action campaign, please contact:
Park Guthrie, S4CA Co-Founder and 6th Grade Teacher has been a public school teacher in Northern California for twenty years. He has also worked as a landscaper, an Outward Bound instructor, and the director of an urban agriculture/school garden non-profit. He currently teaches 6th grade at a Salmon Creek Charter School and lives in Sebastopol, CA. He and his wife, Kristan, have three kids Kai (16), Lola (15) and June (12). He co-founded Schools for Climate Action (S4CA) with a group of students, parents, and teachers in July of 2017. In the past 18 months, 97 education sector organizations have broken silence about climate justice with non-partisan S4CA climate action resolutions.
Jonah Gottlieb, S4CA Director and 12th Grade Student
Kimberly Gutzler, National Childrens’ Campaign Founder and S4CA Advisory Board Member