“A ‘Code Red’ for Humanity.”

That’s how the New York Times chose to title its podcast summary of the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Other outlets were similarly grim. “Climate Change is Real, and it’s Permanent,” blared the Washington Post, while the Guardian focused on the “Possible Loss of Several Countries Within the Century.”

My professional focus is on environmental sustainability and climate resiliency in K-12 schools, but, to be honest, those headlines made me want to run the other direction. So it took me a few days to sit down and get into the weeds. When I did, my emotions began to spiral. I felt overwhelmed from fear, guilt, and anxiety as I thought about my kids and their future. I felt waves of outrage at decision makers who for decades have ignored indigenous knowledge, and have prioritized short-term gains over long-term sustainability. And then every so often, little pangs of grit, determination and stubborn optimism shone through.

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 or even confused about the realities of climate change, and how to fit this into an already long list of priorities and activities. Other educators express guilt that they are not doing enough, and many are concerned about the increase in “eco-anxiety” (or climate despair) in children and youth. And it’s clear that most educational leaders are not yet part of the climate leadership landscape—not to mention that the environment and climate change are left almost entirely out of all 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, 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.

Key findings of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Overview and Impacts for Educational Leaders:
First, global warming is unequivocally (100 percent 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 colorThird, 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 decadesIt 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 all 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.

In the past few decades, educational leaders have risen to many challenges. Initiatives at the federal, state and local level seek to address the significant inequalities we face in the K-12 education system in regard to academic outcomes. Leaders have begun to address the epidemic of trauma in schools, transforming schools into “trauma-informed” environments. Most recently educational leaders have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, which has required a complete overhaul of every aspect of daily life for school communities. The IPCC report calls on educational leaders to now do the same for the climate crisis in order to protect those most vulnerable to climate impacts, our children and youth.

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 every single aspect of schools through a lens of sustainability and climate resiliency from campus facilities and operations, to curriculum, to community engagement and overall school culture.

How Educators Can Get Started

Check out the full IPCC Sixth Assessment Report Summary and Overview for Educational Leaders, which includes access to a list of top ten actions that Educational leaders can do right now to respond. 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 changemaker 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 solution- and project-based learning for all students at every grade level.

It is so important that educational leaders see themselves as part of the climate leadership landscape, so that we can build a base of educational leaders who can speak more fluently about the climate crisis, and take actionable steps to help their school communities both mitigate and adapt in the climate era. Our students—and our planet—are counting on us.

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