As leaders including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Microsoft president Brad Smith, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and many others have vowed to fight climate change, students at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Wash. are doing the same.
The teens created Schools Under 2C, a student-led organization that aims to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions at their school and others worldwide.
“What we really hope to do is to prove that kids across the country care about climate change and together we can form a powerful network,” said Anne Lee, the group’s president and a junior at the Redmond high school.
Lee and others launched Schools Under 2C in November when it was becoming clear that the Trump administration was likely to abandon the goals set in the Paris Climate Accord. Last week, Trump formally declared his intention to withdraw from the global agreement signed by 196 nations. The U.S. had committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
“Even if our nation wouldn’t follow through,” said Lee, “we would take action.”
Already 20 schools in Washington have signed the group’s pledge and the organization is working with students in Texas and Australia. About 80 students at Tesla STEM are involved in Schools Under 2C.
The Paris Accord aims to prevent the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on average compared to preindustrial temperatures. By staying at or below a 2-degree increase, the hope is that some of the most dire effects of climate change can be avoided, though the planet is already suffering from rising sea levels, unusual weather events and ocean acidification, among other impacts.
The students watched the press conference when Trump announce his decision on the Paris Accord.
“It felt heartbreaking and lonely,” said Ben Zabback, a senior at Tesla STEM and director of their composting efforts.
To figure out their school’s carbon footprint and reduction target, the students worked with a faculty advisor, Mike Town, and McKinstry, a Seattle-based company that tracks energy consumption at Tesla STEM and other schools in the Lake Washington School District and elsewhere.
The students focused on school operations that they could influence, Town said. They calculated that the school produces about 4-5 tons of greenhouse gases each month from electricity use and waste sent to landfills, so they would need to shave a little more than 1 ton from their output to meet the Paris goals.
To cut electricity usage, the students did outreach to the teachers and asked them to sign pledges to turn off their classroom lights during planning periods and lunch; all of them agreed.
The King County Green Schools Program helped the students set up a system to send food and other organic waste to a compost facility instead of the landfill. They created and hung informational posters about composting and stationed volunteers near trash cans to help students learn to sort their waste. More than half of their trash is now being diverted to compost, Town said.
These two changes alone have cut around 2 tons of carbon emissions.
“We’re trying to prove that it’s not that difficult. Behavioral changes can make a really large difference,” said Fred Qin, a junior at Tesla STEM and compliance director for Schools Under 2C.
The students also wanted to target transportation emissions for students going to and from school. Sophomore Rayan Krishnan is working on an app that will allow students to track their mode of transit each way. They’ll earn points for greener options — riding the bus or a bike, walking and carpooling. They’ll be eligible for rewards like Starbucks coffee cards or free cones at Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream.
The app is in beta testing and should be ready for schoolwide use in the fall, Krishnan said. The students are partnering with the city of Redmond and local businesses on the effort.
Students interested joining the effort can sign the carbon reduction pledge and will receive a copy of Schools Under 2C’s launch kit. It contains tools and tips on how to reduce their school’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a carbon calculator for measuring their output. When complete, the transportation app would also be transferrable to students elsewhere.
Lauren Fruge, a McKinstry’s manager, is part of the Lake Washington School District’s resource conservation management team. She said that accurately calculating emissions can be tricky for students, but that many districts are eager to reduce their carbon footprint and that there are programs available to help. The Schools Under 2C is unique, Fruge added, “since this one is so student led, this is a huge differentiator.”
But even if other schools and students can’t precisely figure out and reduce their emissions, the most important objective of Schools Under 2C is providing accurate information about climate issues and helping students consider the impact of the choices they make about transportation and energy use. It’s about empowerment.
“We built this school on the concept that science and engineering can solve the grand challenges our society faces,” said Town, who is also the school’s environmental science teacher. “The thing that I sense with the kids with the Trump election is the unbelievable sense of frustration about the world that they’re inheriting, and the role that the United States is playing.”
Schools Under 2C provides the students a way to channel that frustration into action.
“We’re young now and can’t vote and don’t have that big of a voice in policy issues,” said Lee, the organization’s president. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference. We can make our voice heard through other means.”