Global Warming, School Buses, and the Attainability of Climate Action

When I talk about not being ready for global warming, it’s often about infrastructure, and city-threatening events like floods and fires. The scale of the problem and the solutions makes both daunting. These “big” things are generally made up of smaller things, which tend to be a lot closer to our own experience of the world. I never commuted to school by bus, but I did travel by school bus to certain events, and I remember how hot those could get on a sunny day, and that was over 20 years ago. These days, it seems to be getting worse, from Baton Rouge, LA:

The Ascension Parish elementary and middle school kids riding on Renee Bihm’s school bus have been leaving red-faced or even had to be awakened from what appeared to be heat-induced sleep during afternoon bus rides home this year.

A bus driver in Ascension public schools for 25 years, Bihm said the heat was bad last year but the record temperatures have made this year “horrible.” Water bottles the school system is providing aren’t enough to compensate for broiling temperatures in un-airconditioned buses that Bihm compared to riding in a “tin can.”

“Yesterday was bad. I thought I was going to die yesterday. I could hardly walk to get off the bus. It was that bad,” she said in an interview Saturday.

She recently recorded a temperature of 125 degrees inside her bus.

That is not safe for children. Honestly, it’s not safe for anyone, but children can’t regulate their temperature as well as adults, and so they are more at risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke. This is one way in which the under-funding of education in the US manifests – bus drivers are underpaid, too few of them are hired, and money is generally not spent upgrading bus fleets. The result is more difficult and dangerous conditions for children, families, and bus drivers.

Retrofitting buses with air conditioners isn’t all that difficult or expensive, but with school funding based on property values, most districts don’t have much money to spend on that. At the same time, while adding on AC is important for adapting to global warming, it would also be a good idea to swap the buses out for electric models. That’s more expensive, but still very much within the reach of the wealthiest nation on Earth, right?

There are a myriad of small things that make up the intimidating task of confronting climate change. Some of it is just “big stuff” that will require a great deal of investment and political campaigning to make it happen. Nuclear, wind, and solar power all tend to face well-funded opposition from NIMBYs and fossil fuel interests, and a lot of that opposition comes from within the halls of power, meaning that political change is a necessary prerequisite to a lot of the large-scale stuff that we need.

But it seems like the smaller stuff, like replacing schoolbuses, ought to be easier. Thankfully, it is easier, and while I want it to be happening faster, the bus swap is starting to happen:

“School buses make lots of stops, and whenever the driver of a diesel bus puts their foot on the gas, you get that big cloud of black smoke,” Arthur Wheaton, the director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Insider. “Same thing when all these buses are idling in front of schools and pumping out fumes. All of that goes away with electric.”

The Environmental Protection Agency doled out nearly $900 million for 2,424 clean school buses during the first year of a program authorized by the Biden administration’s infrastructure law. Thousands more should be paid for as the program continues through fiscal year 2026.

Some states have their own funding for electric school buses, as well, pushing the total number on the road even higher — though still a fraction of the nationwide fleet of 500,000 school buses.

The EPA funding came from the “bipartisan infrastructure law” that Biden signed in 2021. As with everything the US government does to help the people, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Funding a full replacement for the entire nation’s fleet would, at that price, cost around $185 billion, but I’m willing to bet that at that scale, the government could negotiate a better deal, if Congress decided that they care more about keeping the cost down, than about corporate profits.

This is also one example of how responding to climate change could be done under a more Keynsian framework of capitalism, which lacks the neoliberal hatred of (non-military) government spending. Things like building efficiency, solar panels on rooftops and parking lots, and even big infrastructure projects do happen under capitalism, it’s just that in the US, at least, every such project faces rabid opposition, both from right-wing ideologues, and from some of the most powerful corporations and individuals on the planet.

That’s why I tend to focus on building collective power through workplace and community organizing. It’s pretty well-known, at this point, how disfunctional the US government is, when it comes to dealing with real problems. We get small wins here and there, but it’s always a fraction of what we need, and it always seems to come with a massive loss, like the approval of new fossil fuel extraction. It is going to take sustained political pressure to get the scale of change that we need, at the speed that we need, and to me it seems obvious that it’s going to take more pressure than has been applied thus far.

It’s frustrating to see tiny steps being taken, that demonstrate that we absolutely do know how to solve a lot of these problems. I hear about a school bus hitting 125F, and I see an entirely preventable tragedy in the making. My fear is that for each of these smaller “fixes”, no matter how easy they are, it will take a tragedy to force the change. Honestly, given the way school shootings have been normalized, I fear that for the US, tragedy may not be enough. To whatever degree a capitalist society can respond to climate change, I think it will still take a mass movement both to make that response happen, and to have even a hope of ensuring that it does not leave poor people and minorities behind.

Organizing is hard work, on top of the work that people already do, and I am absolutely not leading by example here. What makes that work possible, is the belief that with the collective power built through that hard work, material improvement can be achieved. Recent victories by unions have demonstrated that potential in the economic arena, and I think examples like the school buses can serve that purpose for climate action.


  1. says

    I wonder if small solar-powered AC devices could be installed in existing buses for cheaper, just as a life-saving stopgap. We do need long term solutions, but we also need life-saving stop gaps sometimes.

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