A student standing in front of a crowd with signs
Portland students during a 2021 climate strike at Portland City Hall. Isabella Garcia

After two years of work and 25 drafts, the Portland Public Schools (PPS) board adopted what is possibly the most robust and aggressive climate policy of any school district in the nation Tuesday. The policy tasks the district with achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2040 and creating emotional support for students experiencing climate anxiety.

“This will be a sustainable and durable policy framework because it was built by the community,” said Julia Brim-Edwards, PPS board member.

The district’s Climate Crisis Response Policy (CCRP) has three major goals: reducing the district’s environmental footprint, improving the health and wellness of students and staff, and providing robust climate justice education.

The CCRP tasks PPS with reducing the district’s carbon emissions by 50 percent below 2019 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2040. The reductions will require the district to transition to electric school buses, modernize buildings to reduce energy consumption, and increase greenery on school grounds to sequester carbon. To protect students’ health and wellness, the district must prioritize plant-based, locally sourced foods for students when possible and support community members through climate change-related events, like heat waves and wildfires.

It’s not clear how much the energy upgrades and other changes associated with the policy will cost, or where PPS will get the money.

The policy instructs the district to develop a curriculum that teaches students about the root causes of climate change, empowers students to focus on climate solutions, and supports emotional resilience for youth who are inheriting a future fundamentally shaped by climate change.

For Danny Cage, a district student council representative from Grant High School who helped craft the CCRP, developing emotional support services for students is a key aspect of the policy.

“It’s important to acknowledge that what we’re going to be seeing in the next 10 to 30 years is an increase in depression and anxiety in children and people overall linked to climate change,” Cage said during a January policy meeting about the CCRP. “It’s important that we can address that as a district because we are going to start to have students in the counselor’s office and have anxiety and depression-based symptoms based on the environment that we live in.”

The inclusion of a climate justice curriculum is what sets PPS’s policy apart from other school district’s climate goals. While most states have education standards that require teachers to mention human-caused climate change in the classroom, the CCRP requires teachers to teach the “structural racism embedded in climate change due to actions by majority white countries” and provide support for students experiencing both the physical and emotional effects of climate change. According to several climate-focused organizations that helped write the policy, the CCRP is one of the most robust public school climate policies in the nation, on par with the LA Unified School District’s policy to teach climate literacy and achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Climate anxiety is often at the forefront of Portland’s youth climate activism. During last year’s Portland Youth Climate Strike, thousands of Portland students walked out of class and marched to City Hall to demand faster government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Almost all of the youth speakers talked about the overwhelming fear they experienced during major weather events like the 2020 wildfires and 2021 heat dome, but also the near daily fear that their futures are disappearing due to government inaction.

“We have less than eight years to stop the climate crisis,” Adah Crandall, a PPS student and environmental advocate, said to the school board Tuesday. “That number gets thrown around a lot, but I don’t think it sinks in. By the time I’m 23 years old, we may have passed the threshold that leaves this planet uninhabitable for future generations.”

While several PPS students involved in the CCRP process applauded the board’s approval of the policy, they say that they still don’t trust PPS as an ally in the fight against climate change.

In December, PPS staff proposed significant cuts to the CCRP that decreased the specificity of the policy, as well as reduced some of the district’s responsibilities to make PPS buildings more energy efficient. Students and regional climate organizations that helped craft the policy testified against the proposed cuts to the school board. A majority of the cuts were ultimately rejected by the policy committee and the board passed the more robust version of the CCRP.

“It’s important to note that PPS tried to slim down and pass a weak version of the policy and we only have the CCRP we have now because of activism and people testifying and showing up with signs at the meeting,” said Ben Stevenson, a Cleveland High School student and member of Sunrise PDX, in an interview with the Mercury. “Because of that, unfortunately, it’s clear that we need to continue to hold PPS accountable and they’re not going to have this bold climate action on their own. I wish that was the case, but it doesn’t seem to be.”

The district will be held accountable by a Climate Crisis Response Committee that will track the PPS’s progress on its climate goals. The committee will have nine members, including two current PPS students. A majority of the committee members must be people of color who disproportionately experience the negative impacts of climate change. After the group is developed—a process that could take up to a year—the committee will convene quarterly to evaluate PPS’s performance and give an annual report to the school board.

For many CCRP supporters, the policy’s passage is both a momentous occasion worth celebrating, as well as the start of years of hard work.

“One climate policy does not necessarily make PPS climate leaders,” Cage said, “but it is a start.”