Donald Trump takes office later this week as President of the United States. After his election, many students in the Seattle area walked out of classes in protest. At a small public school in Redmond, they took a different approach. Students there have vowed instead to counter Trump’s threat to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. They say even if the U.S. doesn’t meet the carbon reduction goals in the accord, they will.
On a recent afternoon at Redmond’s Tesla-STEM High School, a group of students huddles around a trash bag, examining the contents. Anne Lee, a junior, gets worked up just looking at it.
“It’s just really eye opening and sad,” she says as she points to soiled paper plates, napkins and discarded French fries in the bag.
“All of these things can be composted … There’s even a milk carton that can be recycled.”
Students here have been doing audits like this one lately to get a baseline on what’s currently in their waste stream – and how much they can cut the school’s carbon emissions by changing it. They’ve vowed to meet the targets outlined in the United Nation’s Paris Agreement on climate change.
They found that typically about 75 percent of the trash currently headed for a landfill from this small public school could actually be recycled or composted.
“And it just really goes to show that fighting climate change is really a behavioral issue,” says Lee. “It’s so easy, to just add in a compost bin and just educate the student body to fight these issues.”
Lee is a co-president of a new organization called ‘Schools Under 2C°,’ which the students here launched after the victory of President-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The group says they’ll meet the carbon reduction goals outlined in the agreement at their school, whether or not the new administration follows through. They're planning to meet that pledge themselves to demonstrate how it's done and then get other schools to join them.
The students say they formed the organization because they see it as a concrete action they can take, rather than just making arguments or walking out of classes in protest.
“To make a difference and educate others as well,” said Isaac Perrin, another junior and the vice president of the group. “Not just to try and make a point, trying to actually do something about it.”
The organization now includes more than 50 members, he says, and it’s surprised and motivated him to see how much they’ve accomplished so far. They’ve formed teams working in a range of departments that include compliance, research, graphics, outreach and media.
The kids are partially motivated by their curriculum, which has also given them many of the skills needed to meet their challenge. The ‘STEM’ in their school’s title stands for its aim to prepare all its students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math. They’re all required to take AP environmental science and about half enroll in a University of Washington course on global warming. So they know their material and feel some urgency about it.
Michael Levenkov, another junior at the school and the other co-president of the club, says if the Earth’s atmosphere warms up more than 2 degrees, we’ll cross a disastrous threshold, with irreversible consequences.
“The CO2 starts releasing exponentially, the Arctic permafrost starts melting, so you get methane being released, which is even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, you get famine, uncontrollable hurricanes, droughts – all sorts of negative effects that just create chaos and strife around the world,” he says.
“And if we can keep the warming under 2 degrees Celsius, then we have a chance of preventing that.”
For the U.S., the goal outlined in the Paris agreement amounts to a 28 percent reduction in carbon emissions. Students at Tesla-STEM have calculated their school needs to cut one ton per month to meet that goal. And they think they can reach that target in the next two or three months.
Based on estimates from the EPA and local data about where their trash goes (it’s hauled by train to a landfill in Oregon,) the students estimate that for every pound of garbage they divert, they can save the school three and a half pounds of carbon emissions. So they’re creating a new composting program at Tesla-STEM starting February 1 and will be cracking down on recycling. Students will weigh the diverted waste every day and keep track.
They say the second major source of emissions reduction at the school will come through cutting electricity use, especially through lighting. Fred Qin is another junior and the group’s Compliance Director. He helped make the case for the pledge at the school’s faculty meeting last week.
“According to our calculations, if every teacher turned off their lights for one and a half hours – so planning period and lunch – we would be able to save half a ton per month. So that’s already half of our goal,” Qin said.
They think just these two initiatives – waste reduction and lighting – will get them most of the way to their goal and they expect to meet it this spring. They’ll also be looking at how they heat their building and the transportation choices at the school, to further cut their carbon footprint.
Once they’ve set the example, Levenkov says they plan to use social media and other tools to spread the word and help other schools follow suit - around the region, the nation, and eventually around the world.
“So, each school depending what it’s good at has different areas they can focus on to lower its carbon emissions,” Levenkov said.
The idea for Schools Under 2C° came from their environmental science and engineering teacher, Mike Town. He founded a similar initiative called the Cool Schools Challenge with students at Redmond High School about a decade ago, to help cities meet the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. Town says it saved the Lake Washington district at least $10,000 a year and was replicated by probably 100 schools.
But he says in recent years, students’ interest in rolling up their own sleeves or seeing the impact of their own behavior on climate change had waned, because they could rely on policies such as the U.S. Clean Power Plan or the Paris agreement to address it.
“But when you get a watershed event like the election – and like the statement in president Obama’s farewell address, saying that you have to look deeply inside when you want to solve problems – then all of a sudden, there’s an opportunity for us to do a program like this, because kids are looking for that outlet,” Town said.
That’s certainly true for Anne Lee, the co-president of Schools Under 2C°. She says she’s known since second grade, when she first learned about the plight of polar bears, that she would dedicate herself to climate action. She rattles off statistics from the World Health Organization.
“Currently, over 150,000 deaths occur around the world, every single year, and these are all caused by climate change related issues,” Lee said, adding that the number is expected to reach 250,000 by 2030. “And this is why we, as a student body – as kids – have the moral responsibility to help mitigate the impacts of global warming and climate change.”
The deaths are due to everything from heat stress to malnutrition and diseases like malaria and they disproportionately affect young people in developing countries.
Lee says that makes climate change one of the biggest human rights issues in history and one that makes her want to help empower other kids to join the Schools Under 2C° challenge.