Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time — and schools must learn how to take action, especially since they are among the highest consumers of energy in the United States. Today, in an initiative led by Lecturer Laura Schifter, the Aspen Institute is launching K12 Climate Action, a commission that aims to help schools achieve climate solutions, educate students to confront environmental challenges, and craft policy recommendations to help schools get there.
The commission is chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, and comprises a group of experts in the field, including Delaware Governor Jack Markell, NEA President Becky Pringle, AFT President Randi Weingarten, California State Board President Linda Darling-Hammond, NUL President Marc Morial, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, and San Antonio Public Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez. The commission will work to tap the power of the education sector to lead the drive toward climate action, solutions, and environmental justice.
Here, Schifter discusses why now is the time to launch this commission and why schools have found it difficult to educate about climate change in the past.
Why is it important for K–12 schools to take on the issue of climate change?
Schools have a direct need to address climate change. With nearly 100,000 public schools across the country, schools have a sizable environmental impact. Our public schools are among the largest energy consumers in the public sector, and energy costs are the second highest cost for school districts behind salaries. With 480,000 school buses, schools operate the largest mass transit fleet in the country, and schools serve over 7 billion meals annually. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the resilience of our education system, and we need to do more to support the education sector and communities in preparing for learning disruptions which will only continue with climate change. We also know that the negative impacts of climate change will disproportionately impact Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Americans, and other communities of color as well as low-income communities.
Our education system provides a critical opportunity. As our education systems transition to more sustainable practices and build more resilience, they can use teaching and learning to engage and equip children and youth with the knowledge and skills to build a more sustainable world. We can also use this as a moment to advance equity — ensuring that diverse perspectives are elevated and guide efforts to support the education sector in moving toward climate action.
What have been some of the barriers preventing schools from tackling the climate issue?
I think some of the major barriers for schools have been awareness and funding. In particular, in considering opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint of schools, school districts may not be aware of ways in which they can reduce their footprint, and if they are aware, they may not have the political will and funding to support their efforts. In some instances, schools may require infrastructure and facilities repairs, renovations, and improvements and that all comes with a cost.
In terms of supporting teaching and learning, time, funding, and support always remain challenges. We need to ensure that educators have the resources they need and sufficient support and professional development to engage students in deeper learning and problem-solving to help youth build their knowledge and skills.
Importantly, though, if we move through these barriers, schools, students, and communities can benefit. Enabling schools to make infrastructure improvements and shifts toward clean energy can save schools money which can be redirected to support teaching and learning. Increasing access to sustainable food and transitioning to EV school buses can help improve student health. And increasing opportunities for students to engage on issues they are most concerned about can increase student interest and engagement. Our education system can help children and youth become the leaders, innovators, and community members who will lead our fight against the climate crisis and advance climate solutions.
How will the K12 Climate Action initiative help schools work past these barriers?
The commission will hold a virtual listening tour to learn about the needs, opportunities, and barriers for the education sector to move toward climate action. Currently, there are educators, schools, and school districts across the country who are doing this work, and a key part of the commission's work will be elevating best practices currently occurring. Informed by the listening sessions and input from people across the country, the commission will develop collaborative policy recommendations to help support schools and remove barriers to this work.
K12 Climate Action is also building a coalition of organizations and people who believe our education sector will be an essential tool in the fight against climate change and want to support schools in this work. We welcome people to join this coalition at K12ClimateAction.org and share their ideas about what schools can do.
How do issues of equity factor into climate change?
Climate change is already and will continue to exacerbate existing inequities for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Americans, and other communities of color as well as low-income communities, and to reduce these inequities, we must face this issue head-on. Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by air pollution and lack access to updated infrastructure and technology. Rural communities face unique challenges related to climate change and may not have access to tools to help adapt and build resilience. People with disabilities are more at risk of negative health impacts related to climate change.
Acknowledging these inequities is a critical first step toward identifying solutions. K12 Climate Action will put equity at the center of our work to ensure we identify the inequities communities will face in the education sector as it intersects with climate change and identify potential solutions to reduce inequities.
What’s one easy thing schools can do to get started in responding to climate change?
One simple, affordable thing schools can do is to talk with their school communities. Determine what students, parents, educators, and school leaders are interested in doing on the issue. Once you have a sense of community interests and needs, then you can look to best practice and develop the best plan for your school community. This may end up being a school garden, composting in the cafeteria, adding solar panels, integrating project-based learning around issues of climate change — but the best path forward should be grounded in community interest and needs.