Op-Ed

Net-Zero-Energy Schools in a Post-Paris Accord U.S.

The challenge might seem greater, but focusing on schools is crucial as climate change advocacy moves to local leadership.

Candace Pearson

On the same day that our editorial team finalized this month’s feature article on net-zero-energy schools, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.

As I re-read the article, my own words seemed tone-deaf in the context of this new reality. The past few years had given me optimism that green building was on the brink of widespread adoption. An un-integrated approach and outdated financial models seemed to be the only things holding back the floodgates. I once heard Jason McLennan say, “If there’s a better way of doing something and it is cheaper, then it is only a matter of time until it becomes common practice.” In my two years of researching net-zero-energy schools, it was clear that many designers felt it wouldn’t be long before net-zero-energy schools become the standard.

Seeing the climate agreement agreement revoked in defiance of the scientific community makes such a tipping point seem remote, even impossible. Lauding a handful of net-zero-energy schools in light of such news felt more like a symbol of woeful inadequacy than an indicator of progress.

But then came the stories of others stepping up. At the latest count, 211 U.S. mayors have pledged to uphold the agreement’s commitments in their own cities. AIA released a statement urging members to assist groups trying to meet the accord. College and university presidents from 170 institutions also expressed their commitment.

Clearly, movement on climate change will now be advanced locally. And, it occurred to me that there is nothing more local than schools. Entire communities have to come together to fund and support them. They are where our values are put to the test and also where we are able to take a long-term view on financial payback. The idea of “investing in the next generation” takes the shape of actual nieces and nephews, grandchildren, sons and daughters. There may be only a handful of net-zero-energy schools out there, but maybe these case studies are all the more important now that people are asking what can be reasonably advanced at the local level.

Still, if I were to write the feature article again I would focus on the students. I would ask them how they feel in their classroom. What topic they did their 5th grade project on. What they think about when they throw their lunch away. My bet is that the children in net-zero-energy schools have some pretty cool things to say.

I would take this approach because I think the green building movement now has another hurdle to master in order to be impactful: it must inspire empathy, or care for something outside of ourselves. Wanting what is best for our children is maybe the smallest leap of empathy. We are all driven to protect not just oneself but one’s own. I do believe that—though misguided—this is part of the reason that President Trump and his supporters wanted to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord in the first place. Something must be done to help those who have lost their livelihood and the vitality of their towns to the dying coal industry. It’s easy to see how this form of empathy could be redirected towards building more healthy, comfortable, educational spaces for children—with a economic upside for struggling communities. Motivations like these are more poignant and specific at a local level, so maybe we’ll begin seeing action being taken on green building in regions that have previously been resistant.

But my hope is that eventually, the boundaries of what we consider “our own” will expand. My hypothesis is that while adults might be convinced to back a net-zero-energy school to give their children an edge over others, their children will learn and develop in a place that imbues a sense of interconnectedness to the wider living world, and they’ll grow up with a more inclusive sense of who and what they are responsible for. This will only happen if net-zero-energy schools—and green buildings in general—are designed to foster relationships between people and to connect occupants with the natural world. It’s easier for us to empathize with that which we understand. When design helps us better connect with our coworkers or see the hummingbird outside our window, it expands our capacity for empathy.

A lack of empathy—both for the natural world and for groups of people that might seem remote or that look different—is the only explanation for moving backwards on climate change. Net-zero-energy schools have a role in restoring it.

 

Published June 7, 2017

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