On a Friday in September 2019, Jonathan Klein’s daughter asked him to go with her to a climate strike in San Francisco.
The weather was mild, but the planet was warming, and young people were taking notice. That day, thousands of students marched through the city’s streets, protesting officials’ lack of urgency in responding to the climate crisis.
That day changed the trajectory of Klein’s life.
“Hearing their urgency around this issue and their frustration with the adults in their lives who were both not preparing them for what was ahead and … weren’t making the decisions now that needed to be made, it had a big impact on me,” Klein said.
Soon after the protest, Klein left his job as CEO of an education nonprofit to start UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit that focuses on schools’ response to the climate crisis.
He is one of 50 authors on a new report released March 2 that paints a dismal picture of California schools’ preparedness for the impacts of climate change, from extreme heat and wildfires to poor air quality and drought.
Two of every five public school buildings in California are at least 50 years old, built before the climate crisis came into clear view. Plus, those schools rely on antiquated technologies that may be contributing to the the problems, rather than solving them, the report says.
A report UndauntedK12 published in January concluded that U.S. schools emit roughly the equivalent of 5 million gas-powered cars each year through fossil fuel-powered HVAC systems, and that more than 70 percent of schools rely on gas or oil for heat.
Without immediate intervention, it’s likely that schools poorly equipped to keep children safe from the effects of climate change will close intermittently, leading to academic consequences, the report’s authors concluded.
“This is not a tomorrow thing. It’s happening now,” Klein said. “All of us have to see ourselves as leaders because a rapidly changing climate will continue to shape our children’s lives like almost no other issue in the coming decades.”
While the study focused on California schools, its authors said districts across the country should take note and make the recommended adjustments, as well. Climate change, they said, is not unique to the Golden State, and will affect—or is already affecting—every corner of the country.
“If kids are in school 180 days a year, at least, and one in six Americans are on a school campus every day, there’s no path forward without making sure that our schools are sustainable and resilient and safeguard students’ learning opportunities,” Klein said.
Schools need a comprehensive response
The report calls for a 10-year, $150 billion investment “to ensure K-12 public schools can remain open and provide safe and healthy places for California’s children to learn and grow.”
It includes 14 recommendations in three categories: facilities, community, and curriculum. The bulk of the recommendations relate to school campuses and include adopting sustainable construction practices, using solar technology to power schools, creating regenerative schoolyard gardens, electrifying school bus fleets, and upgrading HVAC systems to electric heat pumps.
It also acknowledged that more students are anxious about climate change and recommended staffing schools with mental health professionals who are equipped to help them navigate their feelings, and connecting them with community groups they can participate in.
A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey last year found that 37 percent of teenagers feel anxious when they think about climate change and its effects, and more than a third feel afraid. Many also said they feel helpless and overwhelmed.
The report recommends taking a proactive approach to climate education, incorporating it into curriculum, and increasing teachers’ professional development on the topic.
“To fulfill their mission, our schools must also prepare students to live and lead in a world that is being fundamentally re-shaped by climate change,” the report says.
But schools are doing that inconsistently. Recent surveys—both from the EdWeek Research Center and the North American Association for Environmental Education—have shown that teachers want to teach about climate change but don’t feel equipped to do so, even as students are bringing up the topic on their own.
That’s not to mention the effects climate change could have on children’s health.
Smoky air and exposure to extreme heat can cause serious asthma-related complications. Breathing in wildfire smoke can lead to a higher risk of cancer among children, the report says.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to these threats because their bodies are more sensitive to environmental hazards and have developed less ability to adapt,” it says.
Schools critical to combatting, responding to the climate crisis
The report argues that schools play one of the most important roles in combatting climate change. It estimates that California schools account for nearly 10 percent of the state’s carbon pollution. Thus, more environmentally friendly technologies—like electric buses and power systems that don’t rely on fossil fuels—could play a major role in slowing the climate crisis.
Schools—and students—also have a lot to lose from climate change’s effects.
Heatwaves can cause power outages, which can result in school closures if buildings, particularly those that are older, do not have adequate air conditioning or backup power sources like solar panels. Electric utilities sometimes opt to shut off power in areas when there is elevated fire risk.
Those disruptions prevent students from going to school and can have long-term consequences for academic achievement and future opportunities, and even their mental health.
“School districts throughout California are expected to see an increase in the number of hot days per school year that could require closing schools that do not have air conditioning or place a demand on the energy grid as more air conditioning is placed in schools, contributing to regional blackouts, which could be avoided for schools running on solar to battery storage back-up,” the report said.
“... Old as many of them are, California’s public school buildings were designed to operate in a cooler, milder climate where extreme events, such as 100-degree heat and massive wildfires, were much rarer than they are today—and still rarer than they will be.”
Even if schools remain open in extreme heat, the heat can impair children’s ability to focus on their schoolwork. Students of color, who more often attend older schools, are the most likely to be affected, according to the report.
Schools are often considered the nucleus of a community, so it makes sense to make concerted investments in their sustainability, Klein said.
In an emergency, schools can serve as cooling centers or emergency shelters. To serve that purpose, they need the infrastructure to stay powered and running.
“It can sort of support community resilience,” he said, “because we need places for people to be able to escape the effects of things like heat and fire.”