Climate Smart & Energy Wise (Part 8)



Recently I've been contemplating the heroism involved in teaching, learning, and applying climate change science. By heroic I don't mean in the traditional Hollywood hero-coming-to-the-rescue-in-the-final-reel sense of the word. Rather, in the more ordinary, everyday sense described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero of a Thousand Faces.

According to Campbell, a hero is anyone who overcomes conflicts by seeking guidance, learning new skills, and confronting internal and external obstacles. Ultimately, if all goes well, these ordinary heroes rise above their own fears and doubts to overcome daunting odds.

(George Lucas cited Campbell's work as an inspiration for Star WarsNumerous other films have been shaped by Campbell's insights into universal themes of overcoming adversity through conscious struggle and perseverance.)

Teaching and learning about and then responding to climate, energy and related global change challenges certainly has no shortage of inner and outer obstacles and adversity. Climate Smart & Energy Wise is my attempt to provide a very rough sketch of the landscape that may help educators and learners gain the knowledge needed to face the trials and tribulations of global change. It will be up to them to apply what they have learned to address climate and energy challenges at local, regional, national, and international scales. No small tasks, but I'm confident our fledgling heroes and heroines are up to the calling.

Over the course of the book and this series of blog postings, we—me, the writer, and you, the reader—begin our journey with a whirlwind tour of the facts of changing climate that is caused primarily by humans burning fossil fuels. We delve into the emerging best practices that take advantage of how people learn, and explore the issues of under-prepared teachers.

We examine the new but often overwhelming education standards and map where they relate to climate and energy. We survey how the climate and energy literacy frameworks can be unpacked and brought to life in the classroom, pointing to the extended excerpts of them in the appendices.

We glimpse the wealth of available high quality learning activities and resources, and admire shining examples of successful programs and strategies that can potentially be customized, expanded, and scaled up. We confront the corrosive powers of denial, doubt, confusion, and despair, and we think of ways to overcome their destructive effects.

Then, finally, in Chapter 8, I suggest a few additional arrows for their proverbial quivers, strategies that will help—and are already helping—in some schools. The first set of suggestions is to help simply break the ice, to cut through the taboo of talking about climate change and start conversations with others (faculty, students, parents, administrators) about how to infuse climate and energy topics throughout the K–12 curriculum. The second, complementary, set of suggestions is to help transform the school infrastructure itself into climate-safe, energy efficient living laboratories for learners and their communities.

This idea of upgrading and revamping school buildings into healthy, inspiring facilities where young people can learn by doing is not new. The Center for Green Schools, part of the United States Green Building Council, has been promoting the concept for years. But the challenges of such a transformation of infrastructure are enormous despite broad support

Why green up schools? The reasons are numerous: our children deserve to learn in healthy, inspiring facilities. Schools located in communities throughout the nation are vital leverage points for preparing society from the inside out. Doing the math, in any given year, 25% of the nation is in school. That's 56 million in K–12 and another 20 million in colleges and universities. There are roughly 140,000 schools in the United States—the bulk of them elementary schools, with smaller numbers of middle and high schools and roughly 4,000 schools of higher education, many of them with multiple buildings. It's a large but manageable number, if there is buy-in and leadership at the local level.

One of the biggest obstacles to transforming and “greening” our thousands and thousands of schools, however, is their current woeful state of decay. In their 2013 State of the Schools report, the Center found that nationally $271 billion is required to bring K–12 school buildings up to working order and comply with existing laws.

Another $542 billion are needed to invest in modernizing schools to meet current education, safety and health standards. So $813 billion just to get them up to par! Imagine how much it’d cost to go above and beyond. So, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to improving schools is how badly our schools need to be upgraded.

In California, always a good test-bed for new trends, and where one out of every eight students in the United States goes to school, 70% of the state’s school buildings are over 25 years old and 30% are more than 50 years old. Like many districts in the nation, a large percentage of districts in California have not been able to raise bonds to improve their facilities in decades. Infrastructure is run down and in some cases unsafe and unhealthy.

But the tide is starting to turn, with the help of efforts like Prop 39—the California Clean Energy Jobs Act passed by voters in 2012—that provides an estimated $2.75 billion over five years to the state’s public schools for energy efficiency and alternative energy projects. Some schools, including the Mount Diablo Unified Schools and Butte Community College in California now generate nearly as much total energy as they consume. Working with utility companies and regulators, there is no reason why they couldn't generate and potentially help store on a regionally distributed manner substantially more energy than they consume.

To be sure, the challenge is daunting but doable. Even in districts that struggle financially, teachers, parents, and students are finding creative solutions, such as Kickstarter campaigns to purchase solar panels for the schools. But if we were more methodical, more scientific about this, we could transform all, not just a handful of schools in relatively short order. If we were to make the investment in our children's education and future, many and perhaps most schools could use state-of-the-art solar and energy-efficient design principles.

Another example, Casey Middle School in Boulder, Colorado, originally built in the 1920s and in need of major renovation. In 2006 voters approved a  school district bond for capital improvements and as a result Casey was upgraded to become one of two LEED Platinum schools in the nation when the renovation was completed. Casey students benefit not just from the updated infrastructure, but also from the many teachable moments that the facility itself offers.

Transforming the nations' schools inside and out is not unrealistic, utopian or grandiose. We obviously have to start where we are and move one step at a time, one school at a time, one day at a time. But given the exponential trends of increased emissions and the resulting heating and disruption of ecosystems and society that will occur, we have to do it—and we can, as long as we keep focused on the goal: preparing our young people and communities to triumph, heroically, over the climate and energy challenges we now face.

Short Bio

Mark McCaffrey is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.