Smoke filled the air, and everyone sheltered inside recently as Washington, D.C., hit code purple for air quality for the first time ever. The following week, the weather was so beautiful that I walked miles between meetings just to get outside.

We forget and move on.

And yet we all know that the weather and planet don’t behave like they used to. Though we might want to wish it away, climate change is prompting dramatic shifts in our communities and country — as insurers pull out of flood and wildfire zones, financial and emotional costs of extreme weather pile up, and school and work stop for more heat days than snow days.

We need to learn new habits, see patterns differently, and use different priorities to guide our decisions to stave off even worse effects. Who better to shepherd this process than our colleges and universities? After all, they serve as knowledge brokers, innovation machines, community anchors, and leading employers.

And yet higher education seems largely absent from national and global climate efforts. For example, there is $2 trillion in new federal spending to promote clean energy and reduce emissions. But education and training providers are eligible for less than one percent of that, mostly through funding to build America’s semiconductor industry. The White House’s “modern industrial strategy” for transforming the American economy pays almost no attention to higher education and workforce development. And only a third of nations’ plans for implementing the Paris Agreement even mention education about climate change.

We can’t manage the green transition without trained workers and an education system that prepares people for what’s next. As LinkedIn recently concluded, “The hard truth is that, right now, we are nowhere close to having sufficient green talent, green skills or green jobs to deliver the green transition.”

Three major gaps

Education systems have a significant role to play — and can’t wait for a federal windfall to get started. New research by Unbounded Associates uncovered three specific gaps that need urgent attention:

Green jobs gap: The U.S. green workforce — already nearly a quarter of U.S. employment and growing — is stratified by gender and race: 80 percent of workers are white, and 75 percent are male.

Green skills gap: Stratification also shows up in fields of study associated with the most in-demand green jobs. Students tend to look like the workers in those fields already — and many are not in the programs poised for significant sector growth and personal advancement. Latino learners are overrepresented in training programs for green Construction and Extraction industries, Black learners in those for green Office and Administration Support jobs, and women in fields of study less likely to grow or get significant new public investments.

Moreover, the majority of “bright outlook” green jobs require a bachelor’s degree (the chart below shows the breakdown by credential levels and median salary). Colleges will need to create pathways so non-degree credentials for green jobs can stack and lead to bachelor’s degrees over time.

Overhead pie chart education levels required for entry to green jobs. The largest chunk of the pie goes to Bachelor's degrees.

Green learning opportunities gap: The geography of places to build green skills is patchy at best, with physical barriers separating learning opportunities from marginalized communities that could benefit. Coal country in eastern Kentucky is an educational desert for green learning, even though the area is poised to transition to clean energy with its open space. Green learning opportunities and target populations live on different islands in Hawaii. And, in Chicago, green learning options for many depend on reliable bus routes, financial aid, and overcoming longstanding prejudice and distrust between different parts of the city.

Hard but meaningful work ahead

Higher education must evolve to adapt to and mitigate climate change. One new hire or new policy won’t do it. Colleges, systems, and partners need deep engagement to make this happen. Students will provide an essential guiding star. They already care deeply about climate change and will be responsible for cleaning up messes made by older generations. I’m excited to see how the newly launched Higher Ed Climate Action Task Force and Center for Climate Futures at the Foundation for California Community Colleges will offer wisdom.

This will be very hard work. But isn’t all learning? We aren’t born knowing how to read and write. There’s magic to learning and innovating in a community, led by educators eager to unlock students’ potential.

Higher education can lead the way by reorienting programs around learning for sustainability and clean energy, both poised to grow significantly, with high interest among young people. And we can apply lessons learned from the last big economic shift — the tech boom of the early 21st century — to pursue equity at the outset, rather than watching a booming sector leave many people — and higher education itself — behind.

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