How can schools battle climate change?

by Penelope Oliver | April 3, 2023 | 0 Comments
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School buildings are old and inefficient

Every weekday, millions of students in California attend classes in buildings that are making the future of the world worse. It’s a huge problem.

Students who participated in the Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders last summer got a chance to hear from Jonathan Klein, the co-founder of UndauntedK12, a nonprofit organization that is working to convert America’s aging, inefficient school buildings into a big opportunity for change. You can watch his presentation here:

Undaunted K-12 and California leadership

California has taken significant measures to address the climate crisis, and often serves as a catalyst for change in other states, the nation, and beyond. As the state with the most students in the country, it has many thousands of buildings to heat and cool, which requires a lot of energy and — at present — releases a lot of carbon.

Penelope Oliver

Penelope Oliver has served as an Outreach Ambassador for the Ed100 Student Academy and as an Education Policy Intern for

To find out more about the future of clean-powered schools, and how students can advocate for change, I sat down with Jonathan for an interview, summarized below.

(Note: In addition to being the co-founder of Undaunted K-12, Klein was also a founder of GO Public Schools, Revolution Foods, and the Oakland Public Education Fund.)

How can students get involved?

Penelope: You spoke a bit about UndauntedK12’s work on climate change action and policy in schools in California. How can student leaders get involved in this process?

“Launch a campaign to electrify all buildings in your district”

Jonathan: Young people are driving this movement, and there are many ways student leaders can get involved. One example, and a great place to start, would be launching a campaign to pass a school board resolution to electrify all the K-12 buildings in your district. Rewiring America has a campaign guide with step by step information to do this.

What should districts add to their LCAPs?

Penelope: What do you hope school districts will add to their LCAPs? What are ways to advocate for these changes in district policy?

Jonathan: Every district should plan to transition away from fossil fuels. Last year we joined Rewiring America and UC Santa Barbara to put out this report. It encourages districts to examine every infrastructure investment they make through a health and climate lens. Policies adopted by other school districts are an excellent resource when deciding what demands to make of district leaders. For example, the Portland Public Schools’ policy prohibits the installation of gas-fired equipment in all new buildings and commits to phase out fossil fuel infrastructure in all existing buildings by 2050. Students everywhere are entitled to ask for the same things.

“Follow examples from other districts”

A shifting economy and climate also require new ways of teaching. It’s important that districts invest in climate literacy and preparing young people for careers in a green economy. In September 2022, Governor Newsom approved AB 185, which revised the Arts, Music, and Instructional Materials Discretionary Block Grant, and allocated $3.5 billion to local school districts for five purposes, one of which includes explicit reference to Environmental Literacy. [Editor’s note: the governor subsequently trimmed this block grant, but it remains significant.]

The California Environmental Literacy Initiative put together a toolkit to help districts develop spending plans for this block grant.

How can students speak up?

Penelope: What are some steps students can take that don’t require a lot of resources to make changes in their schools or communities? Which one of these methods is most successful?

Jonathan: One of the best ways for students to get involved is to show up in person at school board meetings. Tell your representatives that climate action is important to you, and that you want school leaders to do more! If you want ideas for projects and grant opportunities, visit our website. Also, ask district leaders for a meeting to discuss your ideas. Many district leaders are open to making changes, but we need to raise awareness of the many resources available.

Is the timing good for investing in school energy facilities?

Penelope: Do higher interest rates mean that school facilities are doomed to remain unimproved?

Jonathan: No school facility is inherently doomed to remain unimproved! There are lots of options for funding these projects right now. Some schools already have funding in hand for improvements, and they may have secured fixed interest rates for these projects. Of course, given the current economic environment, the cost of borrowing is going to affect all borrowers, including schools. Last year, California school districts received approval from local voters to raise about $20 billion in school infrastructure bonds.

“Energy is already the second-largest expenditure for most school districts.”

Energy is already the second-largest expenditure for most school districts. If fossil fuel prices go up, school facilities that rely on fossil fuels for electricity will see their expenses go up, too. So even though interest rates are high, making improvements to increase energy efficiency in schools can help with cost savings over the long run. And for new construction, net zero energy buildings can actually cost less than traditional buildings.

Which facilities changes matter most?

Penelope: From a global sustainability perspective, what are the most essential facilities investments for schools to make?

Jonathan: Not every school is in the same situation; we know that there are many school buildings that have suffered from chronic underinvestment, and these are often schools that serve low-income students and students of color in communities greatly impacted by environmental injustice. As state leaders make decisions about how to allocate funding, they must ensure that all schools — not just those in high-wealth districts — are prioritized for climate-resilient improvements.

“Heating and cooling systems can shackle a school to fossil fuels for decades”

Most HVAC systems in schools today are gas-burning and produce onsite emissions that affect air quality. About 1 in 3 schools in the US will need to replace or install a new HVAC system by 2025. The average lifespan of a new system is about 30 years. If schools replace those with new gas-burning HVAC units, they are potentially shackling themselves to fossil fuels beyond 2050!

The better investment over the long run is to upgrade to electric heat pumps for heating and cooling. They produce no onsite emissions, cost less over the long run, and accelerate the transition to net zero. How districts manage these projects in the 2020s will largely determine whether the schools will be part of California’s climate solution in the 2030s, 2040s, and beyond.

Is health and safety a factor?

Penelope: How do climate change and school health and safety (i.e. clean water, and air) intersect? When advocating for change, do these issues commonly go hand in hand?

Jonathan: There is no shortage of evidence that climate change is a public health issue, and the climate movement is finally beginning to catch on. Air pollution from fossil fuels causes 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. Harvard recently published a study concluding that extreme heat driven by climate change disproportionately impacts children of color with asthma. And schools, without realizing there are alternatives, continue to burn fossil fuels in their heating systems, buses, and gas stoves, undermining indoor air quality. Climate action in schools is about ensuring that we protect what’s most precious to us: the health and well-being of our children and future generations.

What’s changing with school buses?

Penelope: Recently, the Biden-Harris Administration passed legislation that will allocate 1 billion dollars towards the transition to electric school buses. What does the future of school transportation look like with this new policy enacted?

Jonathan: There’s no doubt the future of school transportation is electric. This new funding will cover the cost of nearly 2,300 school buses across 400 districts nationwide – and the majority of these districts serve low-income and rural students. This is a really exciting step on the path to decarbonizing school infrastructure, and I think we will see more investments along these lines in the near future.

Is it good timing to invest in school facilities?

Penelope: Students in California, like me, have been subject to immense heat waves, fires, floods and power outages. How can schools, in switching to greener energy, prevent further learning disruptions?

Jonathan: The great thing about school climate action is it feeds two birds with one seed: reducing reliance on the drivers of climate change — like fossil fuels — while also mitigating its impacts. It’s no wonder we’re seeing disruptions in CA — two out of five schools in the state were built 50 years ago or more, long before we knew anything about climate change. They weren’t designed to withstand the kind of weather events we see today. Students today need school buildings with air conditioning and filtration systems as well as playgrounds with shade trees and structures.

We know what it looks like when school is disrupted — Covid has shown us that it takes a devastating toll on children and their learning. Experts agree that we need to do everything in our power to keep kids in school. In order to ensure young people can attend healthy schools in our current climate reality, the state needs to invest $150 billion in climate resilient school infrastructure. With several partners, we just released an important report, Climate-Resilient California Schools, which explains what that might look like.

Penelope Oliver (She/Her/Hers) is a teen from Sacramento, California who has served as an Ed100 Outreach Ambassador and as a policy intern. Her main passions are activism, racial and gender equality, climate justice, immigration, and educational equity. She can often be found writing poetry, volunteering, or educating others about civic engagement. Follow her on Instagram at @penelopethepowerfulpoet.

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