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Post date: Monday, 7 August 2023

Responsibilities, expectations, and learning: What do Boards of Trustees need to know about climate transitions?

By Rachel Bolstad

Recently we ran workshops on climate transitions for Boards of Trustees at the NZSTA Conference 2023. We’d first offered these workshops at the 2022 NZSTA conference based on NZCER’s ongoing climate research. This year we invited Tracy Finlayson from the Ministry of Education's Carbon Neutral Government Programme to join us as a co-presenter.

Why "climate transitions"?

We framed our session as an opportunity to explore climate transitions. One of the challenges of climate change is that it can feel big, scary, overwhelming, and outside of our control.  Talking about “transitions” help us think about the changes in a different way. A transition is defined as the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.  When we talk about climate transitions, we mean both the transitions that will need to happen because of the impacts of climate change, and the transitions that are needed to move towards a low-emissions future.

We began the workshops by inviting people to share how climate transitions are being experienced in their schools and communities. Some shared their experiences of flooding and cyclone events in early 2023. Some reflected on changes happening in their communities as part of efforts to reduce climate emissions. We then talked about three key climate transitions that our society needs to make, and why these are important: 

  • Reducing emissions – taking action to put less carbon into the atmosphere. 

  • Adaptation – dealing with the impacts of climate change. 

  • Just Transitions – ensuring the transition to a climate-changed, low-carbon future is equitable and socially just. 

We invited Board members to brainstorm all their questions about climate transitions, putting these on post-it notes and clustering them on a wall.  

We could see at least four big themes in their questions. 

Responsibilities and prioritisation 

Lots of questions indicated Boards were uncertain about what their responsibilities were (or might be in the future) with respect to climate transitions. Uncertainty about prioritisation was another theme. 

“Is it the Board’s responsibility, and if so how important is it compared to other priorities?” 

“What policies will Boards need to develop on climate? (E.g. emissions reduction, school closure in emergencies, etc) 

“Will climate transitions be as big as health and safety in the future?” 

“What will get the most change in [emissions] reductions - prioritisation of options?” 

Reporting expectations 

Board members wondered what schools would - or might - need to report about climate emissions and/or climate risks. They wondered how such reporting might be done, and what that might look like for schools and at the national level. 

“Will schools do a climate risk assessment to feed into MoE?” 

“Will schools have to report on emissions like corporates do?” 

“Is there a national emissions protocol to measure emissions?” 

Funding and resourcing 

Of course, Board members also had questions about funding and resourcing. 

“What resources are available to Boards to navigate climate transitions?” 

“Will there be funding for schools to cope with transitions/develop new strategy?” 

“Will funding reflect the need for better and more appropriate materials?” 

“Who pays?” 

Young people’s learning and wellbeing 

Finally, there were questions about how to support young people’s learning and wellbeing through climate transitions. 

How can Boards hear what students think or want re: climate transitions?” 

“How to keep kids positive and not fearful of the challenges ahead?” 

“Is there a plan to help teachers teach positive approaches to climate change response?” 

“What do we have in the national curriculum to prepare children/youth?” 

“How much should climate change awareness be shared to our tamariki at school?” 

“How do we get our kids through unsafe environmental changes (e.g. flooded areas)?” 

Addressing Board members’ questions  

We explained to Board members we might not be able to answer all their questions yet, but we discussed what’s happening in some of the relevant policy spaces such as the Carbon Neutral Government Programme (CNGP), the National Flood Risk Management Programme, and the Curriculum Refresh.  

The CNGP in particular has some fairly clear implications for all public sector organisation, including state schools and kura as it requires state sector organisations to measure, report, and eventually reduce and offset emissions. At present, the Ministry of Education is doing the reporting on behalf of schools and kura, building a portfolio-level picture of schools’ annual emissions based on centrally held data.

Tracy Finlayson from the Ministry’s CNGP team shared a bit about how this is being done, and what this might look like if a school was to try to understand its own emissions profile. She also talk about how a school, or a network of schools, might use this information to prompt discussion and action. This section of the workshop generated lots of discussion and questions. 

We talked about climate justice and some of the specific social justice and equity issues that our education systems already need to address, and which also need to be considered when we think about climate transitions in Aotearoa New Zealand.  

We prompted Board members to think about what connections they could make by applying a “climate-conscious” lense to their key objectives under the Education and Training Act 2020, which include:

  • to ensure every student at the school is able to attain their highest possible standard in education achievement
  • to ensure the school is a physically and emotionally safe place
  • to give effect to relevant students rights
  • to be inclusive of and cater for students with differing needs
  • to give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi

Given everything we'd explored in the workshop, I encouraged Boards to ponder these two questions:

  1. How can Boards be climate-conscious within these objectives?
  2. Will these objectives need to evolve to be more explicitly climate-conscious?

Just scratching the surface 

It’s important for Boards of Trustees to know that this is an actively evolving and sometimes quite complex space. Even where there might not be clear answers yet,  Board members can do a lot just by asking these kinds of questions in their schools, and helping to keep climate transition conversations alive in their schools and communities.  

The good news is that each year it’s getting easier to find information that might be exactly what a school or Board of Trustees might be looking for  with respect to climate transitions.  I encourage Boards to look into the rapidly-growing field of “climate governance”. Currently most of the literature in this space  is geared towards Boards in the corporate and finance sectors, but I think Boards in education and social sectors should be supported to develop capabilities in this area too. 

To keep this conversation going, I've prepared this padlet of Climate resources for whole-school leadership and governance

I hope your school or Board finds this useful. If you do, let me know! 


This is fabulous mahi at the Board level - great to see climate education work starting to be done across all levels of the sector. On that note - I did like the post-it note offered " How can we hear what tamariki think and want re: climate transitions". Such an important part of the kaupapa for schools to get their heads around.

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