4 Ways Higher Education Can Lead for Climate Action in 2017

Amidst disinformation campaigns aimed at teachers[i] and a federal retreat from domestic and international climate solutions, U.S. colleges and universities play an even more important role than ever in upholding science-based education and preparing the future workforce.

When the consensus among scientists is higher than 99 percent that humans are altering the Earth’s climate, students at every level have a right to learn about the causes, effects and solutions and educators have an obligation to teach them.[ii]  Despite the pressure for near-term profits, even corporate leaders appreciate the benefits of climate leadership. This week, over 1,200 U.S. businesses, investors, governors, mayors, and colleges and universities from across the U.S., representing the broadest cross section of the American economy yet assembled in pursuit of climate action, declared their intent to continue to ensure the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing carbon emissions.

At National Wildlife Federation, we work towards the simple but powerful goal of increasing wildlife populations across the U.S. Climate change is one of the biggest obstacles, necessitating landscape-scale restoration of soil and habitat, a wholesale shift towards clean energy, and smart policies at every level to drive innovation and create good jobs.

Since the stakes are so high for future generations, human and wildlife, we would like to suggest four actions that would be valuable at this time for higher education leaders to take and to bring attention to resources created to assist by NWF and our partners:

  1. Support K-12 Teachers in Our Communities

A recent survey of middle and high school teachers across the U.S. published in Science, reveals the majority are getting climate science wrong.[iii]  College and university leaders can help address the knowledge gap by hosting seminars on campus for elementary and high school teachers that explore pedagogical approaches to topics that will shape their students’ lives and careers, such as the role of the Earth’s biodiversity in providing ecosystem services, impacts and causes of climate change, and new career pathways for solutions. NWF offers a variety of resources to help through our EcoSchools USA  program, and its college counterpart, NWF’s EcoLeaders Program. Materials include essential principles for teaching climate and energy topics across age levels, curricula with sample lesson plans, and project-based learning resources.

  1. Prepare Students to Lead

For college students and young professionals, NWF offers a sustainability career and leadership development program – EcoLeaders. The program reached a milestone this month, surpassing 2,000 enrollees at more than 550 colleges and universities in all 50 U.S. states and many other countries around the world. The program involves five steps: create a personal mission statement for resilient communities, advance a sustainability project, reach out to support others, develop a personalized career plan, and earn certifications for project-based leadership. Other supports include a career center and annual EcoCareers conference in partnership with campus career services and employers, a business case for campus climate action, a campus climate action planning guide and  a curriculum leading to a certificate of mastery of sustainability education essentials, coming soon. You can access the full range of climate-action resources in the NWF Campus Ecology Resource Center.

  1. Collaborate with Peers through the Presidents’ Climate Commitment

Second Nature, an NWF partner, hosts the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments. The commitments, covering climate, carbon neutrality, and resilience and enjoying nearly 800 college and university signatories, provide support for the executive policies and leadership initiatives that create high performing colleges and universities that save money, curb waste and produce a higher educational return on investment. The NWF Campus Ecology Resource Center has an array of resources to  help students and campus leadership achieve the aims of the commitments.

  1. Advocate for 20 Million Global Sustainability Citizens

Many higher education leaders ask their non-profit peers to work collaboratively and toward a bigger vision. In that spirit, four non-profit organizations: The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), NWF, Second Nature, and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), coalesced in fall of 2015 to support colleges and universities in preparing 20 million graduates ready to serve as “global sustainability citizens” by 2025. The existing AASHE sustainability tracking and rating system (STARS) serves as the assessment instrument to identify the courses that qualify and tally the students that qualify each year. Colleges and universities that participate in partner programming receive a 50 percent acceleration credit for one or more of three programs, i.e. hosting the USGBC Center for Green School’s LEED Lab, serving as an NWF Campus Partner, or implementing the Presidents’ Climate Commitments.

Moving Forward:

In every age, there is resistance to shifts in technology and practice that can improve society, and this age is no different. Higher education is an important bulwark for science-based solutions, critical thinking, and the greater societal good. As advocates for wildlife, we greatly respect the higher education leaders across the U.S. and world who have the courage and wisdom to step up for science-based education and policies.

Together, we can ensure that the best family-supporting jobs on the horizon will be for a workforce equipped with sustainability knowledge and skills, whether those jobs involve designing smart energy storage and distribution systems, financing solar cities, or protecting breeding grounds for ducks in the American heartland.

Please contact the NWF EcoLeaders team at (800) 822-9919 or EcoLeaders@NWF.org if you would like to discuss any of the above programs.  We welcome your ideas and help.  Please ask for any of the following team members:  Julian Keniry, Courtney Cochran, David Corsar, Kristy Jones, or Eriqah Vincent.

[i] Simmons, Daisy.  “Teachers Dubious about Heartland Climate Mailing.” Yale Climate Connections.  May 5, 2017.

[ii] Powell, James Lawrence.  “The Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming Matters.”  Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 2016, Vol. 36(3) 157-163.

[iii] Plutzer, McCaffrey, et. al. “Climate Confusion Among US Teachers.”  Science. Vol. 351, Issue 6274, Feb. 12, 2016, pp. 664-665.