A (Hopeful) Race Against Time

by Crystal Land


“You can’t come back to something that is gone.” 
– Richard Powers, The Overstory


This summer I spent a week on a majestic hiking trip on Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where much of my reading and thinking about our planet converged. Iceland, a very small country of 330,000––about the size of Oakland––is heavily powered by renewable energy and serves as a symbol of both the crisis and the potential we have with global warming. 

During one of our hikes, our guide pointed out a glacier—locally referred to as “Ok”—on the nearby horizon. Actually, I stand corrected. Our guide pointed to it and said, “That hill used to be a glacier just a couple of years ago.” According to Katrin Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s Prime Minister, who wrote in a recent New York Times opinion: “The ice field that covered the mountain in 1900—close to six square miles—has now been replaced by a crater lake. It is certainly beautiful, surrounded by patchy snowfields, and is now the highest lake in Iceland. But that beauty quickly fades in the eyes of anyone who knows what was there before and why it is no longer there. Ok’s disappearance is yet another testimony of irreversible global climate change.” 

On August 18 Icelanders held a ceremony to commemorate Ok’s revised—and sad—status with a plaque that states:

In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

Of course, this is not new news. Still, it's a timely reminder of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the need to limit our warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century (instead of the previous target of 3.6 degrees). Similarly, 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg has completed her solar sailing trip across the Atlantic to join the United Nations Climate talks in September. As these moments remind us, climate change impacts just about every part of our planet including increased natural disasters, resulting human displacement, food and water shortages and, of course, the loss of coral reefs, glaciers, and endangered species. The impact of a warming planet cuts across socio-economic class, race, and gender, although the effects are more deeply felt on those who are most vulnerable. 

So what can we do, as a small school in Oakland, about these massive and much-needed policy changes?

Research shows that doom and gloom messaging (and yes, the above information is a bit depressing!) doesn’t work to change habits and the key to inciting action is understanding and practicing practical, “do-able” strategies on the local level. Luckily, we have the guidance of our Strategic Plan and Green Mission, which asks us to (1) develop a “green mindset”; (2) institute operational policies and practices to support this work; and (3) create Schoolwide curricular tie-ins to sustainability, environmental health, nutrition, personal responsibility, citizenship, and leadership. 

On the facilities level, we have enacted the following: 

  • In 2018, we became a “Certified Green Business,” demonstrating our deep commitment to conservation and preventing pollution in both the facility and operations. This certification means our business complies with environmental regulations in the areas of waste, energy, water, pollution prevention, and air quality. In 2019, we replaced every lightbulb on campus with energy-efficient LEDs and, with the addition of 486 new solar panels, we now generate a total 445,000 kWh per year.

  • Our service agreement with PG&E stipulates that additional electricity provided to the School must come exclusively from solar and wind. 

  • We are a certified East Bay Municipal Water District “WaterSmart Partner,” a distinction awarded to businesses, organizations, agencies, or individuals that have demonstrated water conservation or efficiency in their mission. In partnership with EBMUD, we installed tri-sort containers across campus to allow sorting for landfill, organics, and recycling to reduce our landfill impact. 

  • The Jayhawk Cafe uses exclusively bio-plastic, compostable plates, cups, and utensils, as well as napkins made from recycled paper. 

  • We provide transportation options to and from campus, including a carpool map and School-subsidized financial support for family bus use. 

On the educational side, we have many possibilities and plans in progress:

  • The School advocates for a reduction of red meat consumption in our cafe (Meatless Mondays!) and at home. According to a recent study, if everyone reduced their meat and poultry consumption by 25%, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 82 million metric tons per year. You don’t have to become a vegetarian––just make a few intentional changes in your diet. 

  • We are onboarding all new high school students with our sustainability initiatives to increase student understanding and empower them to act. Take a look at the slides here

  • Faculty are developing inspirational projects including a Schoolwide EcoChallenge, a new 5th grade Climate Justice unit, a 7th grade marine science and sustainability unit in partnership with the Marine Mammal Center, and the use of our solar panel data in several courses including AP Environmental Science. 

  • The School is examining the City of Oakland’s Equitable Climate Action Plan (ECAP) at various grade levels to connect students to local, community-based projects as part of our ongoing Oaklinks initiative. 

  • A growing network of concerned Heads of School is working with the Sierra Club to create a curricular scope and sequence directly connected to climate literacy benchmarks. 

  • Head-Royce’s Center for Community Engagement—specifically, the robust Upper School student-led Community Engagement Board—is encouraging our student body to participate in sustainability initiatives on campus and throughout the Bay Area. Our students continue to attend leadership trainings, volunteer for nonprofits, and intern at a variety of eco-minded organizations. 

  • In 2016, the Board of Trustees allocated 5% of our endowment to invest in “green” funds. We are currently tracking the success of these investments for future discussion on the role of green investments in our larger School endowment. 

  • In May 2019, our 5th graders competed in the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s (SIFMA) Stock Market Game. Head-Royce students invested only in sustainable companies and their green minds paid off: they won second prize competing against schools across Northern California! This year’s 5th grade class will participate in the year-long competition.

Now that I’m back on campus and thinking about how we as a community can create lasting change, it’s clear that Oakland shares more than a population size with Iceland. We too have the desire and capability to power our grid with renewable resources, a vital tool in fighting climate change. If you take a look at your PG&E bill, you’ll see the words East Bay Community Energy (EBCE). That’s because PG&E no longer generates electricity for the City of Oakland; they simply transmit it from a variety of renewable sources. Today Head-Royce generates 64% of our energy with our own solar panels. One day soon we hope to reduce our consumption so that we not only consume solar energy, but also start generating power for the City of Oakland. 

As a School, we have committed to 100% renewable, carbon-free energy. What more can we do to realize our Green Mission and graduate climate-literate students? I invite you to share your own action plans for greener living so that we can combat rising temperatures and, together, ensure a safe, lasting home for future generations. 

–Crystal Land