The Only Constant is (Climate) Change: Adapting Education for a Warming Planet

How one of America’s largest public school systems is grappling with global warming and stewarding the future of 700,000 young minds.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is one of the largest public school districts in the United States, serving over 700,000 students in 26 cities in the Los Angeles valley region at 1,302 school sites.[i] The District is planning for and responding to climate change effects primarily by providing education around these issues to students and by modeling environmental sustainability in facilities design, construction and operations.

LAUSD is not alone in adopting policies and plans to reduce its carbon emissions. In fact, public entities across the United States have developed Climate Action Plans with specific carbon reduction targets and timelines. Like LAUSD, many public entities are largely focused on reducing their climate impact, not on preparing for climate change impacts such as sea-level rise and extreme weather risks. Among the largest cities in the country with Climate Action Plans, 80% include goals around improving energy efficiency of existing buildings, but only 25% include any adaptation measures.[ii]

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Unforeseen Threats

LAUSD may not be considering the impact of climate change on its most vulnerable students or students and families it has yet to meet. Homeless youth. Climate refugees coming to California. Students whose families depend on California’s agricultural economy for their livelihoods. Providing education and economic pathways for these students may not be enough to safeguard their futures. The District could be doing more to affect change in land use planning, transportation, and construction practices by voting with its capital budget and spreading awareness. Furthermore, by engaging its teachers and staff and reaching out to students’ families, the District has an enormous platform to create behavioral change around energy and water use.

Awareness Leads to Action

In 2008, the District’s Board of Education passed a resolution to mandate environmental awareness education including the science of global warming in all K-5 classrooms (in addition to existing climate change curriculum covered by courses in grades 6-12).[iii] The mandate was accompanied by plans to convert one of the District’s facilities into a green facility for the dedicated purpose of educating students about sustainability and global warming.[iv] Beginning with their core competency – education – the District’s leaders took a stand in asserting that understanding climate change science was required for students to become effective global citizens.

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A core part of the District’s mission is to prepare students for careers of the future, which include industries that will be transformed by climate change. LAUSD was the recipient of a California Department of Education Linked Learning grant which funds career academies – schools within schools focused on experiential learning – throughout the District. [v] Student projects within this model have included designing a bridge for the planned high-speed train project (improving transportation sustainability), writing an environmental impact report on projects impacting the Los Angeles River (environmental sustainability and water systems), auditing classrooms and designing a programmable lighting and HVAC control program (energy efficiency), and studying the impact of environmental factors on obesity rates and mental health problems prevalent in certain L.A. neighborhoods (environmental justice and public health).[vi]

Ripples of Impact

In addition to influencing thousands of young minds, the District commands significant purchasing power in the building industry, which is a major contributor to energy and water use and thus is the largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.[vii] In order to increase funding for school facilities, the District relies on the political organizing power of the building trades unions to mobilize voters in support of school bonds on election day.[viii] Incidentally, sustainable building retrofits are good business for the trades as well as an operational cost saver for schools. Thus LAUSD manages over $22 billion in voter-approved school bonds and been aggressively pursuing energy efficiency retrofits and solar installations across the district, which have already prevented emissions equivalent to over 60,000 metric tons of CO2.[ix]

Change is the Only Constant

A recent report indicates that the energy intensity of California’s economy is decreasing even as new jobs are being created.[x] This is good news for the students of LAUSD who are gaining skills for the new economy and understanding the necessity of adaptation as they watch the systems around them change.

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[i] Fingertip Facts (2016-17) Los Angeles Unified School District,, accessed 11/04/16.

[ii] Ellen Bassett & Vivek Shandas (2010) Innovation and Climate Action Planning, Journal of the American Planning Association, 76:4, 435-450, DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2010.509703

[iii] Los Angeles City Board of Education (2008) Resolution on Elementary Science Education and Global Warming,, accessed 11/04/16.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Linked Learning Showcase (March 8, 2016) Los Angeles Unified School District,, accessed 11/04/16.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii][vii] United Nations Environment Programme (2003) Why Buildings,, accessed 11/04/16.

[viii] Greenhut, Steven (July 29, 2015) CA Newspaper Criticizes PLAs, State Building Trades President Responds,;-State-Buildin.aspx, accessed 11/04/16.

[ix] Los Angeles Unified School District, Total Solar Energy Generated to Date,, accessed 11/04/16.

[x] California Green Innovation Index (June 29, 2016),, accessed 11/04/16.


Banking on change


To Shop, or Not to Shop: Depends on the Weather

Student comments on The Only Constant is (Climate) Change: Adapting Education for a Warming Planet

  1. Really interesting example of how one player could have so much impact on the overall system through education, purchasing power, etc. Nice choice! I’m curious about the ripple effect of all the newly vulnerable students you laid out and how the district plans on addressing them… For example, enrollment could potentially skyrocket thereby increasing the variable costs of the schools. I’d also imagine that many of these vulnerable students and families will put a much greater draw on the support resources through the school and county. In addition, that balance between vulnerable and not vulnerable will likely continue to shift away from “not vulnerable” which will hurt the district’s attempts to subsidize the most vulnerable putting even more of a strain on state and federal funding. Hopefully the state and the district are starting these conversations today to secure the necessary funding and support for the schools 10 years from now!

  2. This is a great post, and so different from most of the topics others chose to discuss. Thank you for sharing! Whereas we’ve seen the impact of companies trying to transform their supply chain partners, the focus on educating youth from a young age is very interesting. I also liked how LAUSD is practicing what they preach – educating students in green facilities is an effective way to shaping the way they think about climate change. I hope to see such programs permeate more broadly through our education system.

  3. Neat post, Joanna. I had no idea that LAUSD has taken such a definitive stand against climate change: it’s heartening to see a school system stand-up on what can seem to some like a controversial issue.

    Your post notes that LAUSD sees climate education as a keep part to making their students “global citizens.” I would love is LAUSD included as part of the curriculum political actions for students and their families to take to effect actions here at home. In my view, the massive scale of technological change that is going to be necessary to save the planet can only be financed through government action. Until American families write, protest, and pressure their local, state, and federal officials to take action at scale, meaningful change can’t be realized. After all, no amount of solar panels can make a dent if the American electrical grid remains outdated and overwhelmed.

    In addition, to your thoughtful points about adaptation to more drastic weather, our government currently pours millions of dollars into relief efforts only after devastation occurs, rarely having the foresight to finance preventative measures. Here, too, a push from vulnerable citizens is a must.

  4. Hi Joanna – it’s great to see that there are districts attempting to tackle such large problems as climate change and integrating this into the way they operate. I never thought of districts and subsequently schools serving as a platform to start shaping how students think of climate change but it makes a lot of sense. I’m a big fan of experiential learning and can see how students can be both educated, inspired, and empowered to try to think of solutions to environmental issues. Surprisingly “electricity makes up about 80 percent of the district’s utility bill” which is roughly $130 million [1]. Considering this I wonder if the district should move even faster to invest in energy efficiency. Especially since they are so susceptible to increases in utility prices, for instance the most recent increase is leading to LAUSD paying $24 million more over 5 years [1]. Additionally, they may be able to benefit from having students and staff try to reduce resource consumption in school facilities.


  5. Amazing post. I love the fact that you chose a governmental organization! It is very inspiring to see how this community stand-up against one of the major threads we are facing as a civilization. In particular, I found very enlightening the point you make about the ripples of impact due to the purchasing power the District has over the building industry. This is true story on how the “big players” in a system, can positively catalyze the entire system. My question will be, is it possible to quantify these “ripples of impact”? In other words, will it be possible to quantify the positive externalities of the LAUSD initiative? That quantification will empower policy makers to write polices that potentially can change the history of our planet.

  6. This is a very interesting post. It is good to hear that LAUSD is practicing what it preaches and has already done so much to retrofit buildings and install solar panels. It was also so interesting to hear about the California Department of Education Linked Learning grant that funds experiential learning about climate change. I think this a really amazing way to prepare the youth for a changing future. I hope that this sort of model expands to more school districts throughout the country. I would be curious to learn more about the program and what can be done to scale it.

  7. Really GREAT post! I feel so hopeful after reading how LSAUSD is leveraging its own position in the society to raise awareness. What’s great about LSAUSD is its consistency in advocating for taking active steps to counter climate change. It understands how school operations could generate carbon footprint and proactively retrofit buildings in its real estate portfolios. This not only sends an important message to the public, but also reinforces how the school is acting as a role model to the students when it teaches them how to be problem solvers in the next few decades about climate change. Last but not the least, pushing for even earlier adoption of climate change education in its curriculum and developing a content strategy with hands-on perspective are probably one of the most effective ways to develop future responsible citizens and business leaders who carry the increasing responsibility to counter climate change.

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