Caldwell - West Caldwell Public Schools
Five Year Ecological Sustainability Plan
2016 - 2021
Context: Environmental Concerns
There is consensus among scientists about several environmental concerns. Three of the most significant are Climate Change, Species Extinction, and Overconsumption of Resources.
Climate Change. The burning of fossil fuels increases the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere; the level of CO2 concentration is measured in “parts per million,” or ppm. The current level of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere is now over 400 ppm, higher than it has been in over a million years. 2016, 2015, 2017, and 2018 were the warmest four years (in order), in terms of average global temperature, on record. While it may not seem particularly problematic for average temperatures to increase slightly, the effects of this warming, some of which have already been occurring, can be significant:
- Extreme weather events. Warmer temperatures make extreme weather events--including heat waves, hurricanes, heavy downpours/floods, wild fires, droughts, and even severe winter storms--more likely. In the past several decades, there has been an increase in such extreme weather events. In addition to the loss of life associated with such storms, there is often a tremendous financial cost.
- Sea level rise. Warmer temperatures cause the volume of water to expand. Combined with the melting of glaciers, this expansion of the volume of water leads to a rise in sea level. Sea level has been rising slowly and steadily since the late 1800’s. If the Greenland or Antarctic ice cap, both of which are melting, were to collapse, however, this increase could be more dramatic. Sea level rise, of course, threatens coastal cities, and has the potential to displace millions of people.
- Changes to food production. Climate change affects food production in a variety of ways. The extreme weather events described above, such as droughts and heavy downpours, can damage or ruin crops. Small changes in temperature can also benefit certain pests. For example, some frost-sensitive insects are usually killed off in great numbers over the winter. As winters have, overall, been milder in recent years, these insects have turned out in much greater numbers. Many plant diseases and weeds are similarly bolstered by the effects of climate change.
Species Extinction. Species extinction, even without the impact of human beings, occurs naturally. The so-called “background” rate of species extinction is one to five species per year. Scientists estimate that we are now going through a mass extinction of thousands of species per year. There have been five other such mass extinctions in the history of the planet, the most recent of which was 65 million years ago. While species loss in the past was caused by volcanic eruptions or asteroids, the current losses are attributed to human factors, including loss of habitat and the climate change effects described above. Species extinction can have wide-ranging effects, including threatening the food supply through loss of pollinators.
Overconsumption of Resources. The concept of sustainability has at least one fairly straightforward meaning with respect to the use of resources, namely that our use of resources should not outpace our ability to replace them and/or the earth’s capacity to supply them. In order to sustain our current level of usage, however, we would need 1.5 Earths, and if consumption levels in the developing world begin to approach those of the developed countries, we would need 4 Earths. Separate from any of the above issues of the effects of human activity, then, our actions are limited by the available resources.
Five Year Sustainability Plan
The problems discussed above are so complex, so pernicious, and so far-reaching that they would appear to be completely outside the realm of local school district policies and practices of curriculum and instruction. It is exceedingly difficult for large institutions to take significant strides in these matters. For example, it would likely not be feasible for the Caldwell - West Caldwell Public School District to have a Five Year Plan with the goal of using only renewable forms of energy to power its facilities. Such a project would be beyond the district’s current capacity to implement. The costs to retrofit and/or replace buildings and vehicles would be prohibitive. The scope of such a project, moreover, would necessarily take the district at least to some extent away from its central mission of education and shift to a facilities-focused mission. Despite these complications, however, the magnitude of the issues compel school districts to consider them when making plans for the future. At stake is the world the students we are educating will be living in.
The points outlined below represent steps the district can take in the next five years which will have a positive impact on our students and the world at large. Most can be implemented with little or no additional costs.
- Taking a positive stance vs. a “scared straight” approach. Climate change, species extinction, and overconsumption of resources are generally not pleasant topics of conversation. It is sometimes tempting to use their terrifying aspects as a way to motivate people to action, similar to the “scared straight” strategy of presenting the negative aspects of the correctional system as a way of deterring young people from crime. A considerable amount of research, however, demonstrates that, just as “scared straight” programs do not deter young people from committing crimes, attempts to scare people about the state of the environment in order to motivate them to protect it are likewise counterproductive. In fact, some studies suggest that people who are worried or even alarmed about climate change tend to take less action than others. Instead an approach that is positive and emphasizes “co-benefits,” such as economic development potential, more healthful living, or a more caring community tends to be more effective.
- Reducing energy use. Although complete energy independence, as discussed above, is an unrealistic goal for the next five years, achieving significant cuts in energy usage is both feasible and fiscally sound. We have taken initial steps in this direction by having an energy audit conducted and by including energy-efficient HVAC and new windows in the recent Bond Referendum. An important next step will be our completion of the Energy Savings Improvement Plan (ESIP). The reduction of energy use from the installation of LED lighting is expected to pay the cost of the installation within just a few years. LED lighting has now (as of spring 2019) been installed throughout the district.
- Enhancing educational activities. Understanding of environmental concerns is reflected in the academic standards which we address in our schools, mainly through Science instruction. A key aspect of our work over the next five years, however, should be to enhance those educational activities to ensure that students have thorough knowledge of these issues and the scientific consequences. It is not hyperbole to assert that how these environmental issues play out in the coming decades will likely decide the future of the planet. As future leaders in our society, our students must know the facts about them and develop the skills to address them with both intelligence and innovation.
- Promoting Shared Services. Shared services with other government entities is something usually understood in terms of reducing or eliminating duplicate work in an effort to reduce expenses for constituents. In this case, however, it refers to the fact that most, if not all, of the issues facing the school district with respect to ecological sustainability will be faced by local, state, and federal government as well. The district has already collaborated with both of its communities through its connections with the Caldwell and West Caldwell Environmental Commissions. We have secured grants to develop the Caldwell Sustainability Learning Center, and students and teachers have worked on a variety of community-based initiatives. Over the next five years, we should make it a priority to collaborate with our communities on projects that address long-term ecological sustainability.
- Maintaining a focus on the issues. The use of the words “issues” or “concerns” to describe Climate Change, Species Extinction, and Overconsumption of Resources can minimize their import. If they are merely some among the variety of other issues which we may or may not be attending to, they can be more easily ignored. This is the opposite extreme of the “scared straight” scenario. While we do not want to try to scare people into action, the scope and magnitude of these environmental concerns are so great that deep understanding of them is crucial. A basic premise of virtually all plans for the future of our society is that the overall stability of the ecosystem will be “business-as-usual.” Since the scientific consensus is that “business-as-usual” is very much in jeopardy, the district should maintain a focus on these issues as central to its decisions about policy, curriculum, and instruction.
Taking these steps in the next five years will not solve all of our ecological problems, but they would represent positive action on what are likely to be the critical issues that our students face in the decades ahead.
Alternative Energy Options
The tables below provides a summary of the potential savings involved in directly installing Photovoltaic (solar) systems on each of the main roofs of the district and in installing a wind turbine system at a district site. (These projections were completed in 2015/16. As part of the ESIP projects completed in 2019, as explained below, more favorable returns on investment are available.)
Annual Return on Inv
Lifetime (25 yrs) Savings
Annual Return on Investment
Lifetime Energy Savings (15 years)
Internal Rate of Return
Net Present Value
Due to the cost and lengthy payback, the company that conducted our energy audit in 2015 did not recommend directly installing this ourselves. However, as part of an ESIP program, which we began implementing in 2018 and continued through 2020, it is projected to be cost-effective. The ESIP includes installation of solar panels on all school buildings except Washington School.