The Road to Paris and the Hope for a Lasting Climate Agreement – Is Your School Engaged?

Climate change talk and action are everywhere right now. The media has never been so willing to cover it. US presidential candidates are – or are notably not – discussing it. The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started on college campuses in the US, has moved beyond higher education and beyond our borders. Leaders from 68 of the largest US corporations met with the White House on October 19th and agreed to reduce climate emissions and support the upcoming United Nations climate deal. Indeed 196 nations are preparing for the most critical climate conference yet. The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change will convene in Paris from November 30 – December 11. Its aim is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

The “Road to Paris,” a phrase coined by the business, non-profit and government sectors busy preparing for this climate conference, so far seems promising. America’s Clean Power Plan, announced in August, aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 28% by the year 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Brazil has promised a 43% cut. China says its emissions will peak in 2030, and has pledged to launch a carbon trading system in 2017.

Yet the complexities of this process are extraordinary. How do we get nearly 200 nations to agree? What is each country’s fair share of the carbon burden? Many poor countries feel they should not have to try to fix a problem they bear little responsibility for. Rather they need help, they claim, to deal with increasingly extreme weather, drought and rising seas. To date, over 150 countries have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to reduce emissions. These plans present a mix of targets in such areas as energy efficiency, transportation improvement, renewable energy, and forest protection. The problem, according to analysts, is that so far the pledges don’t add up: rather than assuring a global temperature rise of under 2°C, the estimated numbers suggest we’ll be closer to 3.5°C by the end of the century. The dire consequences of that kind of rise are carefully documented in various scientific and policy papers, including the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Even in America, the tide of opinion is changing. Recent polls indicate that a strong majority of citizens supports government action to fight climate change (New York Times, January 30, 2015).  In education, colleges and universities are leading the way in climate awareness and action. To date, 685 college and university presidents have signed the 2007 American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC), which requires those institutions to improve education on climate change and to develop climate action plans with a goal of climate neutrality. Within the last year, the presidents of Harvard and Yale have publicly acknowledged the critical need to address climate change holistically and committed their institutions to finding solutions through research, operational practices, and public and private partnerships. In 2008, the Green Schools Alliance (GSA) was founded to encourage all K-12 schools to address climate change, modeling its own Climate Commitment on the PCC.

Yet I know of no independent schools that have taken action on climate change at the level of higher education. Many schools have embraced sustainability as a new priority in campus practice. A small number have started to look at how their curriculum prepares students to encounter the real world challenges of sustainability. But very few are addressing climate change head on.  If there was ever an opportune moment to engage in this issue and join the global conversation, it is now.

If your school is not already doing so, I would suggest taking the following actions:

  1. Bring in speakers to address the whole school community about the UN climate conference, and the challenges of both solving and living with climate change.


  1. Invite teachers to come up with exercises or lessons that address climate change and to integrate them into their classes.


  1. Engage all constituencies in the following global questions:
  • In what ways is climate change a political, social, environmental, and economic issue, in other words, a sustainable development issue?
  • How can the countries of the world effectively reach the binding agreement planned for COP21?
  • To what extent is the grass roots climate change movement more like the human rights and social justice struggles of the past than it is an environmental movement?
  • Can we work with the fossil fuel industry to implement strategies that will benefit all? If not, how can we force the industry to change?
  • If climate change is unavoidable, how can we adapt to it?


  1. Engage all constituencies in the following individual and institutional questions:
  • What does it mean to be a climate literate person?
  • If one accepts the reality of climate change, what does it mean to be a responsible citizen?
  • If our school is committed to students of the present and future, and wants to thrive long into the future, what obligations does it have, both in teaching and practice, in the face of climate change?
  • What would it mean for our school to commit to climate neutrality as soon as possible? And how can carbon offsets contribute meaningfully to the goal of neutrality?


  1. Develop an ambitious Climate Action Plan for your school, making it clear to all constituencies that this is a priority.


Some Selected Resources:


NOTE:  This blog was originally posted on the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) website.

Written by Wynn Calder

Wynn Calder

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