It’s Time for Educational Leaders to Join the Climate Leadership: Our children’s future hangs in the balance

It’s Time for Educational Leaders to Join the Climate Leadership: Our Children’s Future Hangs in the Balance

This is a guest post from Andra Yeghoian, the Environmental Literacy Coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Education where she is leading the integration of the Solutionary Framework into 23 school districts. Andra also serves on the Curriculum Advisory Board at the Institute for Humane Education. A version of this blog was originally published by Ed Surge on August 26.

On August 9, 2021, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Sixth Assessment Report. Like most educators and parents, I was so caught up in back-to-school craziness, that I didn’t get a chance to get beyond some of the surface level headlines and quotes: 

  • Washington Post: “Climate Change is Real, and it’s Permanent
  • New York Times: “A ‘Code Red’ for Humanity
  • The Guardian: IPCC Report Shows ‘Possible Loss of Several Countries Within the Century’
  • Wall Street Journal: Some Climate Change Effects May Be Irreversible, U.N. Panel Says
  • Reuters: U.N. Climate Report Delivers Stark Warnings on Global Warming
  • NRDC: Climate Change is a Generational Justice Issue

To be honest, those headlines made me want to run in the other direction, so it took me a few days to really sit down and get into the weeds. When I did, my emotions cycled through the following:

  • Overwhelming feelings of fear, guilt, and anxiety as I thought about my kids and their future;
  • Waves of outrage at decision-makers who for decades have ignored the scientific consensus, prioritizing short-term gains over long-term sustainability;
  • And then, every so often, little pangs of grit, determination, and stubborn optimism.

The thing that has kept my optimism alive is knowing that there is a growing movement in education to prioritize environmental and climate literacy, as well as sustainability and climate resiliency. Across the country (and world) more and more educators are engaging with this movement and helping students navigate the complex realities of the environmental and climate crisis. 

Yet, the vast majority of educators feel overwhelmed by, or even confused about, the realities of climate change and how to fit this topic into an already long list of priorities and activities. Other educators express guilt that they are not doing enough, and many others are concerned about the increase in Eco-Anxiety (or climate despair) in children and youth. And it is clear that most educational leaders are not yet part of the climate leadership landscape, not to mention that these issues are left almost entirely out of teacher and administrative credential preparation programs.  

Educational Leaders Can Catalyze Change

Despite all these challenges, the K-12 education system has been called to action by the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), in particular because the report laid out stark key findings. The report calls on every country, every sector, and every human to engage in a transformational paradigm shift toward an environmentally sustainable and socially just existence. 

Climate Change 2021 The Physical Science Basis

Key findings of AR6 – WG1: First, global warming is unequivocally (100% certain) caused by humansSecond, the impacts of the Climate Crisis are already here, and are disproportionately impacting low-income, Black, indigenous, and other communities of color Third, temperatures have already increased by 1.09°C since 1880, and will continue to the 1.5°C mark in the next twenty years due to emissions from past decades*It is critical to note that the IPCC Report is extremely credible. It is undisputed by all 195 countries in the United Nations, and by the scientific community. 

Because effective paradigm shifts require engaging different levers for change, including policy, behavior, and mindset, the K-12 education system has a high amount of leverage (and some would argue responsibility,) to catalyze change. Educators could not ask for a more important teachable moment than one of the final key findings: If humans act urgently, temperatures could peak at that 1.5°C mark and then decline, helping to stabilize the planet and life on it.For schools, this means reimagining how K-12 education can help humans figure out how to survive and thrive in the climate era. 

Paradigm: A widely accepted belief or concept

David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College paints a clear picture of the obligation that schools have to mitigate this crisis: “The planetary emergency unfolding around us is, first and foremost a crisis of thought, values, perception, ideas, and judgment. In other words, it is a crisis of mind, which makes it a crisis of those institutions which purport to improve minds.”

Similar to COVID-19, in order to protect and nurture children and youth during the climate crisis, conventional K-12 schooling needs to be reimagined in order to prevent learning loss and manage risk. Mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis is a core responsibility of school leaders, and communities must put a plan in place that reimagines schools through a lens of sustainability and climate resiliency from campus facilities and operations, to curriculum, to community engagement and overall school culture.

What Educational Leaders Can do to Get Started

Check out the full IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Summary and Overview for Educational Leaders, which includes a list of Top Ten Action that Educational leaders can do right now to respond and take action. The list ranges from simple to complex, and is organized in a framework for Whole-School Sustainable and Climate Resiliency – highlights include: 

  • Continue to learn about climate change so you can speak fluently on the topic and explain why prioritizing the climate helps to build healthy, equitable, and sustainable school communities;
  • Embrace the role of solutionary and integrate sustainability and climate resiliency into your leadership philosophy;
  • Invest in systemic change by hiring a sustainability coordinator and/or implementing school and district-wide sustainability and climate resiliency task forces;
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions in campus facilities and operations;
  • Integrated lessons and units, as well as opportunities for solutionary project- and problem-based learning for all students at every grade level. 

It is so important that all educational leaders see themselves as part of the climate leadership landscape. Take the next steps with these top ten actions. Our students—and our planet—are counting on us.