The saga began in late May, when president Donald Trump took to his favorite mode of manufactured suspense and tweeted that he would soon decide whether to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. A few days later, he tweeted that an announcement loomed. That evening, another missive: “I will be announcing my decision on Paris Accord, Thursday at 3:00 P.M.,” the president wrote. “The White House Rose Garden. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
I will be announcing my decision on Paris Accord, Thursday at 3:00 P.M. The White House Rose Garden. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2017
The suspense was not killing 17-year-old Anne Lee. She, like many Americans, expected the president to pull out of the accord—he had promised as much during the presidential campaign. And yet, as she watched him confirm her suspicions on June 1, she was disappointed. Looking around the room of her environmental engineering, sustainability, and design class at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, she knew other students were too. “It was devastating,” their teacher, Mike Town, says. “I don’t think most of the media, or at least most politicians, can put themselves into the shoes of high school students and understand how devastating these six months have been to them in regards to their future.” Already they have to reckon with sea level rise and global warming. Now, Town says, they’re faced with lost job opportunities as other countries lead the way in developing technology to meet the standards outlined in the Paris Agreement.
But the students didn’t wallow. Months earlier they’d decided if the commander in chief wouldn’t try to curb carbon dioxide, they would. Town had suggested they try to meet the Paris standards, and the morning after Trump’s election, Lee and about 80 other students met before first period to strategize. By the time the bell rang, Schools Under 2°C was born.
Lee was named president and other students assumed leadership positions such as vice president, communications director, and compliance director.
They then calculated what it would take to reduce the campus’s carbon footprint by about one ton per month. They’d need to reduce their electricity usage, for starters. Classroom lights usually stayed on all day, even during lunch. After the students presented their plan to the faculty, teachers pledged to help by extinguishing the lights when they left a room. When the group figured out composting one pound of waste could save nearly four pounds of carbon dioxide, they launched a program to reroute 50 to 70 percent of the garbage chucked into the school’s trash cans. Now they’re developing a clean transportation program to encourage students to walk, carpool, or take public transit.
That last idea stems from an app, Carpool School, which Lee, junior Rayan Krishnan, and another student concocted a couple of years ago to enable students to find rides. The app won a statewide competition, the Youth Apps Challenge, in 2016 and drew the attention of the City of Redmond, which was interested in clearing up the congestion around the school at the beginning and end of the day. But Krishnan, technology director and VP for Schools Under 2°C, says the students can use it to measure how fewer cars dropping kids off can chip away at carbon emissions. They’re planning to release versions for Android and iOS phones in time for Walk to School Month in October.
“These kids are my heroes,” Town, the teacher, says. “They’ve impressed me in so many unexpected ways.”
The group has built a tool kit to help students and teachers at other schools reduce their own emissions. If the schools are near Redmond, the group assigns a Tesla student as a liaison.
By the end of the last school year, the inaugural Schools Under 2°C chapter had reduced carbon emissions by about two tons per month. More than 30 schools around the country, and a few abroad, followed Tesla STEM’s lead and pledged to meet the accord’s standards.
For the 2017–18 academic year, the team is focused on expanding its outreach, especially to schools in areas that don’t share the same values. Outreach director Anna Vasyura is well aware that they live somewhere with a green, progressive reputation. She says she wants to connect with students in cities that “may not be as concerned.”
Though activated by Trump’s election, the students are eager to steer conversations about their mission away from politics.
“We’re trying to focus on...educating students,” says video director Arvin Thyagarajan. “And how to make the world a better place.”
That message is universal enough, and maybe it’s working. In June, they received an environmental youth award from an unlikely admirer: the president.