Historic flooding across the east coast, wildfires in the west, a freeze in Texas, and a heat dome over the pacific Northwest—these were just a handful of the extreme weather events the United States witnessed in 2021. We are living the impacts of climate change now, and these impacts will increasingly harm all aspects of our lives. As we begin another year, it is abundantly clear that we can’t wait for someone else to act. We must each use our unique perspectives, skills, and knowledge to contribute to the collective effort to advance climate solutions.
In discussions of climate change, we frequently hear about the largest emitting sectors, electricity, and transportation. Many climate efforts focus on their decarbonization. Yet, across all sectors, we all contribute to climate change. For instance, healthcare relies on a significant amount of energy to keep the lights on, ventilation machines pumping, and to run the fleets of ambulances needed. Our homes consume energy to keep our food fresh, our computers and phones charged, and heat or cooling to ensure we are comfortable year-round. The school system has the largest mass transit fleet in the country as well as over 100,000 school buildings on about 2 million acres of land. To decarbonize our society with the urgency needed, we can’t solely think about the supply of clean electricity or clean transportation, but rather we can simultaneously activate demand by thinking more holistically across sectors—scaling our impact.
In addition to contributing to climate change, all sectors and industries will feel the impacts of climate change. From insurance to tourism, climate change will need to be factored into how people plan and prepare for the future.
The Biden administration has recognized the pervasive nature of the climate crisis, calling for an all-of-society response. Yet, it can be daunting to consider how to effectively mobilize a response at that scale. With the Aspen Energy & Environment Program, we have been working to create pathways to activate just this. In particular, with K12 Climate Action, we have created a model which can be used by various sectors, industries, or businesses to help develop their own tailored climate action plans.
K12 Climate Action works to unlock the power of the education sector as a force for climate action, solutions, and environmental justice. The K12 Climate Action Commission, co-chaired by former US Secretary of Education John B. King and former EPA Administrator and Governor Christine Todd Whitman, brings together leaders and stakeholders from the education community with environmental leaders. Over the course of a year, the commission held a listening tour learning from students, educators, school leaders, and more, about the needs and opportunities to support the education sector in taking climate action. It focused its work on the following:
- To help mitigate the impacts of climate change, we highlighted the needs, opportunities, and implications for schools to transition to reduce their carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels through energy, buildings, transportation, and food.
- To adapt and build resilience to climate impacts, we highlighted the needs and opportunities for schools to plan in preparation for disruptions and negative impacts related to climate change.
- To support education, we highlighted how teaching and learning in formal and informal settings can empower children and youth with the knowledge and skills to build a more sustainable world.
- To advance equity, we highlighted the intersections between race, income, and climate change and the opportunity to center under-resourced urban and rural communities and historically underrepresented students and families in advancing climate action in schools.
The commission released the K12 Climate Action Plan to make recommendations about how local, state, and the federal government, as well as media, advocacy, business, and philanthropy can advance climate action across our K-12 education sector. This action plan gives a voice to those within the education sector to be climate advocates and mobilize the sector for action.
In building this initiative, we have learned that cross-sector work can be challenging, however, the following steps can be used as a guide to help any sector, industry, or business develop its own climate action plan:
- Identify cross-sector leaders to lead the planning process. Building a plan requires collaboration across the sectors. By identifying key leaders and stakeholders with diverse knowledge and expertise, the ultimate plan will incorporate these perspectives. For instance, in building the K12 Climate Action commission, we included national leaders like the presidents of the teachers unions and civil rights groups to local leaders like school superintendents and a high school senior. Whether you are an individual business or the healthcare sector, building a diverse collaborative team can help ensure more comprehensive action.
- Listen and learn. To effectively develop a climate action plan, this team should learn about the existing needs, best practices, and opportunities from people on the ground. For a comprehensive plan, the team can use the following questions to guide their learning:
- Mitigate: How does my sector, industry, or business contribute to climate change, and what do we need to do to decarbonize our work?
- Adapt: How will climate change impact my sector, industry, or business, and what do we need to do to adapt and build resilience to climate impacts?
- Unique Contribution: How can my sector, industry, or business uniquely contribute to the fight against climate change?
- Equity: How in this moment of transition can we advance equity-focused work to ensure communities most impacted by climate change are centered?
- Develop and implement a plan. Using this framework and lessons learned, the team can then build a climate action plan that considers the comprehensive needs to mitigate and adapt while also better supporting opportunities to uniquely contribute to the climate fight and advance equity.
In May, we will host Aspen Ideas: Climate to bring together people with different experiences from policymakers to artists to advance comprehensive solutions. We are all able to act on climate change, and we can build a path to collaboratively bring our expertise to the climate fight, increase our demand for action, decarbonize our society, and advance a sustainable future.
This piece is part of In Focus: Rising to the Climate Challenge, a multimedia informational campaign that draws on the expertise of Institute programs. We look at four main facets of the climate change issue—labor and the economy, youth and education, public health and safety, and communities. To get campaign updates and other news from the Aspen Institute in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter.