K12 Climate Action Releases Report Highlighting Opportunities for Growth in Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation and Education in Public Schools

October 15, 2020

Report Examines Sustainable Practices in Education Sector By State

Contact: Nell Callahan

Washington, DC, October 15, 2020  K12 Climate Action, an initiative by the Aspen Institute, today released a report that examines key areas where states have enacted policies that can support schools in moving toward climate action. The report highlights opportunities for growth by focusing on state-level policy; it looks at six topics — energy, transportation, food, virtual learning days, career and technical education and science and social studies standards — across the following three focus areas: mitigation, adaptation, and education. With 98,000 public schools in the United States, the education sector has the opportunity to lead the nation into a new era that normalizes sustainable practices and equips the next generation to tackle the environmental challenges of the future.  

Our education sector presents both a need and an opportunity to move toward climate action. To serve over 50 million students every year, schools have a large environmental footprint through areas including energy, transportation, and food. As we have witnessed during the pandemic over the past six months, schools are essential to communities and need support to build resilience in preparation for potential learning disruptions. Our education sector can also help prepare the next generation and be a tool to advance equity as we address the climate crisis.

In examining state academic standards, currently, 29 states include human-caused climate in science standards, and only five states require climate change in social studies standards. Just this past summer, New Jersey became the first state in the country to incorporate interdisciplinary climate change standards across subject areas. Taking a deep dive into career and technical education policies across states, 29 states have career and technical education programs that prepare students for green careers.

The report describes the need for schools to adapt and build resilience in preparation for the negative consequences of climate change highlighting the impact on students, families, and schools from the Camp Fire and Hurricane Maria. Extreme weather events expose children to trauma, lead to lost learning time and support services, and impact school infrastructure and enrollment. Yet, few policies have been established to proactively build our schools resilience.

In energy, six states have policies that target net-zero energy consumption in schools. Though we are far from transitioning the country’s school bus fleet, 45 states’ Volkswagen Mitigation Settlement plans allow funding to be used for electric school buses. Looking at food policy across states, 34 states and DC have policies or programs to support local food in school meals, 17 states and DC have policies or programs to support school gardens, and 14 states have policies or programs to encourage schools to divert surplus food waste.

The findings show that some states have started to work toward climate action, but it has yet to be comprehensively considered across states and school systems need additional support to help the country achieve rapid decarbonization by 2050.

The full report dives into each topic area, provides examples of each and highlights bright spots across the country. It can be downloaded here.

“The need to act on climate change is universal,” said Laura Schifter, Senior Fellow with K12 Climate Action. “The education sector has a tremendous opportunity to adopt consistent sustainable practices to reduce the carbon footprint and build the resilience of our education system, all while preparing our children and youth to lead climate solutions and advance a sustainable future.”

K12 Climate Action is committed to developing an action plan that outlines steps for the public K-12 education sector in moving toward climate action, solutions, and environmental justice. Co-chaired by John B. King Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust and 10th U.S. Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama, and Christine Todd Whitman, president of the Whitman Strategy Group and former Governor of New Jersey and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, K12 Climate Action consists of 23 commissioners and over 25 coalition partners.

Next week, on October 19, K12 Climate Action will host the first in a series of listening sessions focused on Why Should Schools Move Toward Climate Action. The discussion will feature Dr. Aaron Berstein, Interim Director, The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Maya Green, Organizing Coordinator, Student Voice; and Nichole Berg, Climate Change and Climate Justice Programs Coordinator, Portland Public Schools.

K12 Climate Action will release an action plan in 2021 that will take advantage of schools’ unique position to educate and prepare a new generation of students to advance a more sustainable world. For more information, visit k12climateaction.org and join the conversation by following K12 Climate Action on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the most important challenges facing the United States and the world. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute has a campus in Aspen, Colorado, and an international network of partners. For more information, visit www.aspeninstitute.org.

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