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An image of Earth heating up, with red/orange coloring signaling heat/fire spreading from one side of the planet to the other.


Higher education has long led in addressing climate change, driving research on fundamental and applied questions, raising awareness of causes and potential consequences, and pioneering sustainable practices on campuses. Thanks to these efforts, we now possess the technologies we need for energy and economic transformation. But how do we quickly deploy these tools at scale? How do we build and maintain public trust in the process? Community colleges may provide the answer. 

While the political divide on climate change remains wide, the tenor of the national climate debate has shifted recently. First, there is growing acceptance of the fundamental premise that the climate is changing.  New patterns of severe weather, coastal flooding, and wildfires—and associated consequences like increasing insurance rates—have driven home this point, even as disagreements on the causes and appropriate policy responses persist. 

Secondly, the economics of climate response are evolving. Many green energy technologies now pay for themselves within favorable time frames, and markets for less carbon-intensive products and services represent compelling opportunities for economic growth.  

In this shifting landscape, the federal government (and some states) have advanced aggressive climate targets. The Biden administration’s goals include reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030, reaching 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035, and achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. Guidelines to federal agencies also include a commitment to ensuring that disadvantaged communities benefit from federal investments in climate and clean energy.

These climate goals are ambitious, and without the involvement of the nation’s community and technical colleges, out of reach. Here's why: community and technical colleges offer scale, speed, and community engagement.

First, scale: There are roughly 1,000 public community and technical colleges, spanning the geographic and socioeconomic diversity of the country. These institutions enrolled more than 4.5 million students in the fall of 2023. Our analysis of federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data finds that these institutions awarded more than 850,000 credentials in career-specific fields of study in 2021. With expanded training opportunities in areas like environmental science, fire and forestry mitigation, and the blue economy, community colleges have immense potential to tap into this student population and train a resilience-building workforce.

Many states are already working towards this future—take California as an example. Recent catastrophic wildfires in forested regions of the state have repeatedly destroyed lives and livelihoods. To reduce the chances of future destructive megafires, a large skilled forestry workforce is needed to intensively and intentionally manage rural landscapes. A consortium of community colleges and other partners, funded by an American Rescue Plan Act program, banded together to quickly scale up training programs in forest and fire management. The resulting Resilient Careers in Forestry program is providing an economic jumpstart to communities, as well as healthier forests and a greater chance of long-term carbon storage in those forests.  

Second, speed: Educational institutions can be notoriously bureaucratic and slow to react to changing conditions. Community and technical colleges, which often have elements of local governance as well as extensive connections to their communities, are comparatively more nimble in responding to emerging needs.  

Changes to federal Perkins legislation have enhanced their responsiveness to industry shifts. For example, community and technical colleges are now required under the Perkins V Act to analyze labor market information and to justify their career and technical education programs every two years using a comprehensive local needs assessment. The same legislation requires that they involve industry partners in program development. Community and technical colleges are now better positioned to more rapidly develop new programs, and improve existing ones, that correspond to local employment opportunities.  

Beyond scale and speed, community and technical colleges are trusted fixtures within their communities, in many places serving as “anchor institutions." Unlike selective four-year institutions, community and technical colleges offer open access, comparatively low tuition, and a plethora of credit and noncredit programs, with courses often scheduled around the needs of working adults. These characteristics help explain why students at community and technical colleges are so reflective of the communities that they serve, including low-income, first generation, rural, and racial and ethnic minority populations.  

These strengths can move the needle. Scalable workforce development improves peoples’ lives, supports local and diverse communities, and helps society mitigate and adapt to climate change is possible—and it is starting to happen at individual colleges across the nation. But increased attention, coordination and investment are needed for the nation to meet its targets.

At the federal level, lawmakers should more systematically integrate community and technical colleges into legislative and executive actions on climate. For example, The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and The Inflation Reduction Act represent historic investments in the fight against climate change, but they do not directly fund community and technical colleges to address the economic and labor market shifts the laws will bring. Without the thoughtful integration of community colleges into these initiatives, their contributions to climate adaptation will continue to be local, disjointed and constrained by resources. 

Federal lawmakers can also fund grant programs that incentivize community colleges to partner with employers to prepare students for climate-relevant occupations that would help build greater climate resilience. These programs could be modeled after the Department of Labor’s Strengthening Community Colleges (SCC) Training Grant Program or the former Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program. Both initiatives have helped community colleges build new industry-aligned programs in manufacturing, health care, information technology and transportation. However, of the 39 SCC grants awarded in the first three award cycles, just one was tied to the clean or renewable energy industry. A similar funding program rooted in federal climate goals would spur innovation in preparing students for climate-ready careers. 

To mirror federal commitments, community and technical college systems also need to invest more in climate capacity. For example, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges launched the Climate Solutions Program in 2022 to better integrate climate solutions education across the curriculum, to coordinate green workforce development and to enhance the sustainability of colleges within the system. In California, the Foundation for California Community Colleges launched the Center for Climate Futures to coordinate and support climate action across the state’s 116 community colleges. State administrations can also help by earmarking and distributing Perkins Reserve Grant funds to support the development or expansion of career programs linked to sustainable and climate-ready jobs. 

It is true: The climate is changing, and the economic opportunities of transitioning away from carbon are compelling. According to Martin Keller, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, “We already have the technologies—what we need is an army of skilled workers and a network of trusted institutions to get them deployed across the nation.” The nation’s community and technical colleges are those trusted institutions. Our national- and state-level policies need to acknowledge and reflect this reality.

Cameron Sublett, Ph.D., is associate professor and director of The Education Research & Opportunity Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Jeff Clary, Ph.D., is senior director for climate strategies at the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

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