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Empowering Schools to Take Climate Action

Why schools should act against climate change now and how they can make change a reality.
Climate Change signs

Harvard Lecturer Laura Schifter wants to see schools doing more against climate action. Schools are major contributors to climate issues in ways that educators and administrators may not even realize. Schifter says it goes beyond just the high use of energy, but also school buses and high food waste. The good news is schools can do a lot in shifting its carbon footprint but also making it part of student’s education at the same time. 

>> Watch the HGSE Convening: Education and Climate Action

“The education sector actually contributes a lot to climate change,” she says. “But one of the things that then is also most powerful about the education sector, with nearly one in every six Americans in it, is that if you advance climate solutions within the sector, you're providing opportunities for children and youth who are enrolled to learn about climate solutions firsthand.”

Schifter, who leads the K12 Climate Action Initiative through the Aspen Institute, aims for 100,000 schools to run entirely on clean, renewable energy in 10 years. But what is it going to take to get there? In this episode of the EdCast, Schifter outlines the reasons why schools must act now and shares the many resources available to make change a reality.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast.

Laura Schifter believes it's urgent and necessary for educators to take action against climate change. Data shows schools contribute as much carbon as 18 coal plants or 18 million homes. Laura leads the K12 Climate Action Initiative as part of the Aspen Institute. She was working in special education policy several years ago, when the United Nations released the report warning of the damage to come from global warming. She worried that even the best education system wouldn't matter, if the impact of climate change took hold. Now, Laura works with educators in school districts trying to get 100,000 schools to change their carbon footprint within 10 years. I asked her whether school districts are aware how much they are contributing to climate issues.

Laura Schifter: No, I think it's so easy for us in education to think about us as what we're doing day in and out, think about the immediate needs within the classroom. But, actually, when you think about it, overall, one in every six Americans is enrolled in public schools. And to serve one in every six Americans, we have to have a large sector. So there are nearly 100,000 public schools across the country. Those schools are among the largest consumers of energy in the public sector. Energy is the second highest cost for many school districts, behind salaries. So it's also a substantial cost for school districts. Our schools operate the largest mass transit fleet in the country, with 480,000 school buses. Our schools serve seven billion meals annually. And all of those things add up to a sizable carbon footprint.

So as a sector, the education sector actually contributes a lot to climate change. But one of the things that then is also most powerful about the education sector, with nearly one and every six Americans in it, is that if you advance climate solutions within the sector, you're providing opportunities for children and youth who are enrolled to learn about climate solutions firsthand. And engage with solar panels that they see on the roof, ride an electric bus to school, learn how to compost. And so it's having the impact of decarbonizing a large public sector. But then, also, the opportunity of helping children and youth learn about solutions that they can take to their homes, that they can advance as they get older as well.

Jill Anderson: So tell me a little bit about the K12 Climate Action vision for 10 years from now?

Laura Schifter: The K12 Climate Action Commission was a commission that was co-chaired by former education secretary John King, and former governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman. We brought together people from across the sector, from the presidents of the two largest teachers unions, Becky Pringle and Randi Weingarten. Alongside superintendents, like CEO Pedro Martinez from Chicago, civil rights leaders, as well as student activists. To come together behind a plan to really outline what the education sector can do in taking action on climate change.

And what that plan outlines is a vision that, 10 years from now, our 100,000 schools across the country are beacons for climate action. That they run on clean, renewable electricity. That students are coming to school on electric school buses. That they are using locally sourced food and composting, or repurposing, or donating any related food waste. That school yards don't have heat trapping asphalt. That they're green, sustainable school yards that help reduce community heat and flooding. That students are empowered within those school buildings to learn about climate change, climate solutions, and sustainability firsthand. So that they're prepared to lead a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable society ahead.

And so our vision is really thinking about our education sector as leading the charge in this more hopeful, sustainable society for all of us. And there's the potential for us to really get there. There are also barriers that school systems, clearly, face in order to be able to achieve that. Our infrastructure right now for schools is outdated. So it will take investment. It will take resources to really help our schools become these beacons for climate action. It will take people on the ground advocating for these changes. It will take people on the ground learning more about what they can do in their schools and their communities to advance climate action. So there are barriers that are in place to really reaching this vision, but we can put our schools on a path right now to get there as well.

Jill Anderson: How complicated is it for schools to begin making this kind of shift on the heels of the pandemic? I know there's some financial challenges with this too.

Laura Schifter: So I think one thing to know about how complicated it is, is that there are a lot of resources out there to help schools do this work. So that's an important thing to know off the bat. There are a lot of resources out there. There are a lot of roadmaps to really help people in communities doing this. And there are a lot of communities taking action. I think one thing that the pandemic made clear is that learning disruptions really impact our students. They impact educators. They impact our communities. And those impacts are not just occurring in terms of what happened with the pandemic, students and families and communities are being impacted by climate change right now across the country. And so, actually thinking about this moment where we're re-engaging students, where we're really rethinking education in light of the pandemic, we have the opportunity to think about how climate change is going to impact our schools as well. To ensure that we have a more resilient, sustainable system ahead. So I think that those are really important things to know.

But in terms of the barriers, it will require that educators first recognize that climate change is impacting schools. It is impacting the families and communities that they serve. It is disproportionately impacting communities of color, low income communities. And that there's a real need for us, in the education sector, to recognize that climate change is work that we're going to have to do. So that's, I think, step one for overcoming those barriers.

Another thing for overcoming the barriers that I think is critically important right now is there are a lot of resources available. The Federal Government has passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that provides federal resources to address some of this stuff in schools. The Inflation Reduction Act also creates a lot of opportunities for our schools to use funding to go towards this purpose. And American Rescue Plan funds can actually be used to ensure replacement of HVAC systems are done in a sustainable way too. So even though these barriers do exist, it requires people to recognize the opportunity and then leverage the resources that are available to them to learn how to do this.

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering what the response has been around this issue from schools. Is it more of this thinking of, "Oh gosh, this is another thing that we have to do"? Or, "I want to make a difference, but I don't know how." I'm just curious if there's a majority, or if it's really all over the place, or none of those things I mentioned.

Laura Schifter: So I think it's an all of the above. There was an EdWeek survey that found that a lot of educators do recognize the impact that climate change is having on schools, or will have in schools in the coming years. And they indicated that the two biggest things that they wanted to address climate change better was information about what to do and resources to do it. So if those two conditions are met, if we're really thinking about helping people understand what they can do, and providing the resources to back them up in doing it, the opportunity is there. All that's to say there are still going to be people that are overwhelmed and not prepared to engage right now with all that is going around them, related to everything going on in the education sector. However, it's about continuing to provide opportunities to meet people where they are, and help them see the opportunities that are available.

And then, the last thing I'll say is, one of the biggest things that we saw is, even during the pandemic and when things were shut down, local school districts were acting on this. We've seen school boards pass resolutions to transition their school districts to clean, renewable energy in places like Dallas, in Miami-Dade, in Salt Lake City, in LA, Prince George's County. So we've seen school districts actually take the step to pass the school board resolutions to say, "We're committing to transitioning our school district to clean energy." And then develop action plans around those resolutions, to really plan how the school district is going to do that.

Now, one of the things that's really fascinating about this is that a lot of those places that have passed clean energy resolutions, those resolutions have been driven by students coming to the school boards. And saying, "School boards, we have to do this work. We have to take action on that." And when students have been really the driving force behind school boards making these commitments, the passing of the commitments have been unanimous. Because it's hard to say no to students when they're advocating for this change. It will create healthier, sustainable learning environments for kids. And so it's really hard to say no to the students raising this issue. And it's really an opportunity to bring people together.

Jill Anderson: That's really awesome to hear that there's been so much movement, especially during the pandemic, on this issue. Because I have to imagine it feels almost intangible to approach this because it feels like such a big issue. Can you tell me a little bit about a school, or maybe some schools, that you're aware of that are maybe living in the future in some way? And maybe have achieved the vision list, the action steps that you recommend for 10 years from now.

Laura Schifter: Yeah. When we released our action plan in the fall of 2021, we had the opportunity to visit Alice West Fleet Elementary School, which is an elementary school in Arlington, Virginia. It is a large, net zero elementary school, which means all the energy that the school consumes is actually produced on site. And so there's no additional energy used to run the building. The building relies on zero fossil fuels to operate. So just on the premise, the building itself is a sustainable and resilient building. And in talking to the architect and the school district, it did not cost the school district more to build this building. It actually required them to be smarter about how they build it. So things like determining the angle in which the building was positioned on the land helped ensure that solar panels could maximize the amount of energy that they're generating. So this is just purely in the operation of the building.

But then, when you go into the building, you see how this is integrated into the lives of the students. Right in the center of the entrance to the building, there's a power pole where students can see immediately, right there, how much energy the building is producing versus how much it's consuming. And students have the opportunity to understand energy use and energy generation. And they'll talk about things like, "Oh, if we turn off all the lights in the building, how does that change our consumption?" Or, "On a cloudy day, how is that changing our energy generation?" And the thing that was amazing in talking about this, with people on the school board; with the principal; with folks within the school district, is that students then are also taking these solutions and bringing them home to their parents. And saying, "Hey, we do this at school. Can we do this at home too?" And so there's that spillover effect that, when you actually are integrating these solutions into children's lived experience, they can spill over into the community as well.

Jill Anderson: For educators, or even parents, listening to this, thinking about where is a good place for me to start in my school community, what do you recommend?

Laura Schifter: So a couple of things to start is find other like-minded people within your community to help take this on. These issues are big, but you'll find that there's people that want to figure out what to do. So the first thing is find additional peers that you can work with to take this issue on. We have some key resources available at that can help you in taking action as well. We have key questions to get started. So if your school district wants to develop a climate action plan, we have some key questions that can help you think about, "All right, well, what are my school district's policies right now on buildings? What does my school district use right now in terms of transportation? How are we teaching things in the curriculum?" So we have a guide to help frame some of those questions and that dialogue.

And for parents who want to take action, we also have a parent advocacy toolkit that we've created in partnership with National PTA and Mothers Out Front that can really help guide you in talking about these issues within your community. And helping start a dialogue. In some cases, just the first place to start is to start by talking about it. And not enough of us are talking about the fact that these issues are impacting us, and that we have the opportunity to take action. So a first place to start often is just talking about it.

Jill Anderson: And in terms of finding out what is actually happening in your school community, any tips on that? Because I think for a lot of parents, especially, or maybe even educators working in schools, you have no idea, perhaps, what steps have been taken in your schools.

Laura Schifter: Yeah, I think it would be helpful to look at your school district's website and see, offhand, if they have any sustainability plans in place, if they have any climate action work already occurring. Could be a first place to start. You can also see if there are environmental action teams that the school district has as well. And I would also remember that you have the ability to reach out to people on your school board and request meetings. And ask these questions, and start a dialogue more to learn about what's going on.

Jill Anderson: How do you take on this issue if you're living in a community, and in a school district, where there's a lot of people who don't believe in climate change?

Laura Schifter: So I think one most important thing to recognize up front is that number is becoming smaller and smaller. I think the impacts of climate change are affecting people across the country. And so it's hard to not look outside your window and see things like the devastation of Hurricane Ian, or see things like the devastation of flooding in Kentucky this summer. So the reality is, is that people are experiencing this, and that is making people recognize that this is an issue. We just had a survey that we did, where we found that 74% of people agreed that we have a moral obligation to address climate change for our children and all children to come. So there's actually a lot of consensus around bringing people together, when they think about climate change and how it is going to impact children.

It is also important to know in that survey, we found that 82% of our respondents believe that children will be essential in fighting climate change. And we need to do what we can to help provide them with the knowledge and skills to lead a sustainable world. And so actually thinking about education role might be an opportunity to bring people together. It improves student health, it improves student learning. It can save school districts money in operations. And it can prepare students for the economy of the future. It can prepare students to lead a more sustainable and resilient society ahead. So leading with shared values is going to be an important way to bring people together. And there's a lot of opportunity when thinking about climate change in schools, where we can rely on those shared values to bring people together.

Jill Anderson: A little bit about the government offering funding to help make some of these steps for schools easier and doable. But can you tell me a little bit more about school buses, in particular, and what's available for schools?

Laura Schifter: So the Environmental Protection Agency released their applications for their first round of funding for the Clean School Bus Program this summer. And they had intended to have the first round of funding be $500 million for applicants. However, what they found was that there was a high demand for this funding to start investing in electric school buses in communities across the country. They had applicants from every state. And based on that high demand, they actually decided to release double the amount of funding in this first round of applications. So they're no longer releasing $500 million, but they're releasing almost $1 billion to support communities in acquiring electric school buses and getting them on the road.

Jill Anderson: So it sounds like the time is really now. It sounds like the funding is there for schools to actually do this and make it happen. And it doesn't sound like there's a lot of resistance, at least on the ground, to doing this work, when a group or students or parents or someone comes out of the woodwork to push it through.

Laura Schifter: The time is urgent. The impacts, we're feeling them more and more every year. It's impossible to ignore. So thinking about the urgency of this moment is motivating people to take action. There's a clear opportunity that education has to be a part of solutions, because the children of today are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. And we need to empower them with those knowledge and skills now. And there's a massive amount of opportunity for education to make investments in infrastructure. To support healthy, sustainable learning environments where students can thrive, where educators can thrive. And a real opportunity to center and advance equity in this moment, where we can make these investments in low income communities. And ensure that they have the benefits of these outcomes, and lead in this transition as well.

Jill Anderson: Laura Schifter is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, where she leads the K12 Climate Action Initiative. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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