One in 4 teachers, principals, and district leaders say that climate change is impacting their school or district to some extent. And an additional 18 percent say that while their district has not yet been affected by climate change, they believe it poses an imminent threat, according to a nationally representative survey of educators by the EdWeek Research Center.
The survey responses, taken in February, give a rare look into educator attitudes toward climate change and its impact on their school communities. School buildings across the country have been destroyed or forced to close in response to wildfires, extreme heat, and flooding due to hurricanes. These more severe and frequent natural disasters, which have been linked to climate change, affect students’ learning and physical and mental health.
Even so, 8 percent of educators in EdWeek’s nationally-representative online survey of 960 respondents said they do not believe climate change is real. (In comparison, 14 percent of Americans don’t believe global warming is happening, according to a 2021 summary of public opinion surveys from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.) The vast majority of climate scientists and peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change agree that humans are the driving cause of rising global temperatures, which are altering weather patterns and causing sea levels to rise.
But most school districts have not taken any action in the past five years to prepare for more severe weather related to climate change, according to 84 percent of principals and district leaders surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center.
The reasons? The most cited, by 36 percent of school and district leaders, was that their campuses are located in areas that they don’t expect to be severely impacted by climate change in the near future.
Many educators also pointed to concerns that senior district leaders, school board members, and the broader community would be resistant to taking action—either because people don’t believe climate change is real or that it is not an immediate threat. There are also many more immediate crises competing for school and district leaders’ attention: the ongoing pandemic, student mental health, catching students up academically, and charged debates over how race and LGBTQ issues should be taught in schools—to name just a few. Not all district leaders or other stakeholders are convinced climate change is an area districts should be spending their limited time and resources on.
“One of the things that jumped out at me, a lot of people indicate that they are scared of working on these issues because of a fear of people being dismissive of them,” said Laura Schifter, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, leading the organization’s K-12 climate action initiative, who was not involved in EdWeek’s survey. But, she said, she’s encouraged by the fact that educators themselves are not dismissive of the effects climate change will have on their school communities.
When asked for their personal views on the impact of climate change on their district or school, 16 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders said that climate change has already had a mild effect, while 7 percent said they have seen a moderate effect. Two percent said climate change has already had a severe effect on their district or school.
Larger shares of respondents said although they believe climate change is real, they didn’t think it would impact their district in the foreseeable future (15 percent) or that climate change was unlikely to impact their district because of where it was located (25 percent).
That perception, that climate change will only affect some geographic areas and not others, hints at a misunderstanding of how changing weather patterns will affect our interconnected world, said Schifter.
“Thinking about how climate change is going to impact schools is broader than just the impact of extreme weather on that school,” she said.
For example, extreme weather in other parts of the country could lead to students being displaced, which will affect the schools that take them in, Schifter said. It will also change the economy and what kinds of jobs will be in demand in the future.
“As we start to think about the jobs that will be needed—whether that’s jobs around clean energy or jobs around what’s needed for adaptation or, frankly, emergency management—our school systems need to keep up to ensure that they’re providing students the skills they need to be successful in those jobs,” she said.
What schools are doing to prep for climate change
Overall, schools and districts are putting more of their energy toward reacting to the effects of climate change than in efforts to reduce their carbon footprints.
Nearly half of principals and district leaders said their campuses had invested in infrastructure to support remote instruction when, or if, severe weather does not allow for in-person classes, while 43 percent say they have upgraded school buildings to better withstand severe weather.
“The investment in infrastructure to promote remote instruction—that seems it’s totally reactive to the pandemic. Ultimately, what the pandemic has highlighted is that we need to build more resilience to prepare for disruption,” said Schifter. “I think it’s encouraging that in [educators’] response to climate change, there was an acknowledgement of the fact that what they have done with COVID is helping them prepare for extreme weather related to climate change.”
Large shares of principals and district leaders said their campuses had taken climate change into account when developing emergency response plans (22 percent) and facilities plans (30 percent).
Among other preparations:
- Thirty-nine percent of principals and district leaders said their campuses had started using energy-efficient appliances, and 17 percent said their school or district has invested in sustainable energy sources such as solar or wind power.
- Thirteen percent said their district had developed a strategic plan related to climate change.
- Another 13 percent said their school or district had taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint through efforts like composting, and 4 percent said they had set targets for reducing their carbon footprints.
- Eleven percent of school and district leaders said they had eliminated single-use plastics in their schools.
- Six percent said they had converted or planned to convert gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles, such as school buses, to electric.
- Four percent said they had purchased new or different insurance for severe weather, and 2 percent of principals and district leaders said they had gone so far as to close or relocate buildings in locations that are most likely to be impacted by severe weather.
Schools can play an outsized role in reducing carbon emissions, according to the Aspen Institute. Schools are one of the largest public sector energy consumers in the country, they operate what equates to the nation’s largest mass transit fleet, and they generate over 530,000 tons of food waste a year.
In terms of what teachers, principals, and district leaders say is needed to improve their school or district’s ability to prepare for the effects of climate change, money—perhaps not surprisingly—was one of the two most cited supports.
The other: 36 percent said that better efforts to educate stakeholders about the need to prepare for climate change was also necessary.
Nearly a third said they felt they needed support from the broader community to improve their school or district’s ability to confront climate change.
Eleven percent said that their school or district needed nothing to help prepare for the effects of climate change because their campuses were already well-prepared, and 9 percent said that climate change does not exist or is not a threat to their school or district.
This article is part of an ongoing Education Week series, The Climate Crisis and Schools, about how climate change and schools intersect. We aim to illuminate how schools contribute to climate change; highlight challenges districts face in dealing with the effects of climate change; and offer solutions to the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that often accompany this subject. If you have a related story idea for us, please email staff writer Madeline Will at firstname.lastname@example.org.