Finding Gold in the Golden State

I’m a new transplant to California, having moved to the Golden State from Colorado nearly two circles around the Sun ago, but with a slew of good news on the climate front, it’s felt really great to be a Californian of late.

Today there was an e-mail with the subject line “Californians lead the way in understanding climate change,” which provided a few teasers about the new Yale Six Americas study entitled Climate Change in the Californian Mind, which follows up on the Colorado study we examined last week. (Long story short: Californians are somewhat more tuned into and concerned about the issue than Coloradans or the rest of the nation, believe it's serious, and that something should be done about it. Could it be that the relatively strong coverage of climate change in California science education standards contributes to the higher level of awareness and concern?)

Then there was a report that California climate activist and retired hedge fund manager Tom Steyer is teaming up with former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a major bipartisan initiative on climate change in October. (Mayor Bloomberg has supported the Green School Alliance in New York City, and Paulson has long been involved with climate and environmental issues.)

And on top of that, the impact of Prop 39—the California Clean Energy Jobs Act passed by voters last fall—is starting to kick in, providing an estimated $2.75 billion over five years to the state’s public schools for energy efficiency and alternative energy projects, the money gained by closing a tax loophole on out-of-state corporations.

Prop 39, which was strongly supported by Steyer and his wife who form the TomKat dynamic duo, was the focus of the Smart Schools Symposium at UC Davis last week. Although Steyer wasn’t able to attend, I was able to catch up with Kate Gordon, Vice President and Director of the Climate and Energy program at the Center for the Next Generation, who works closely with a range of climate- and energy-related TomKat projects.

The Symposium was meant mainly as a jamboree for school facilities managers and vendors who have energy-related products and services to offer, but Kate, who gave the opening keynote, gave a shout-out to the teachable moments for all concerned in upgrading schools and making them more efficient.

Explaining how Prop 39 was meant to be the intersection between energy, jobs, equity, and school funding and facilities, she described the Center for the Next Generation as similarly located where climate and energy, children and families intersect.

Why focus on schools to reduce emissions and save energy? Schools are not major contributors to carbon pollution, no matter how inefficient the buildings are (and ones built before World War II tend to be more efficient in general than those built during the sloppy construction that came later.) Energy projects for schools are not big job creators, especially compared to new construction. And projects like this are not the focus of education reformers, who tend to focus on test scores.

But the win-wins on upgrading run-down schools to make them more energy efficient and/or bringing in renewable energy are substantial. And the need is huge: one in eight K-12 students in the United States go to school in California, but 70% of the state’s school building are over 25 years old and 30% are more than 50 years old. Kate cited a UC Berkeley study that indicates the need for $117 billion over the next decade to deal with the facility infrastructure of schools in California.

Energy savings provides huge opportunities for cost savings, and one school already has been able to restore its cancelled music program by saving on energy. Prop 39 allows for flexibility to transfer from facilities to operations, and the state Department of Energy, which is administering the program, seems willing to consider allowing planting trees as part of the energy mix.

Cost savings aren’t the only advantages in store: the quality of education is improved, too. Improving the HVAC systems in schools enhances air quality, which in turn leads to reduced asthma—a leading cause of absenteeism. (And students who aren’t in school aren’t learning.) Similarly, better ventilation and lighting can improve students’ academic performance.

In researching and planning for Prop 39, the Center for the Next Generation learned that this is no inventory of how many schools there are in California, let alone an analysis of what condition they are in. So this initiative has been a catalyst for gathering and tracking data from the schools, which, while all similar in some respects, all have their own unique quirks and energy demands based on their climate heating and cooling needs.

And although curriculum is not an explicit part of Prop 39, there are enormous teachable moments that Prop 39 can help tease out and catalyze. Some districts, like Sac City—one of the largest districts in the state, covering much of Sacramento—have already begun to do that with Project Green and Edible Sac High. As our friends at the Alliance for Climate Education report, student teams from twelve schools recently engaged in a competition in which they “conducted a waste and energy audit of their school, then determined their recommendations for improvement”--and the winning teams’ proposals were funded, too!

But as Kate and others I spoke with agree, these efforts and successful pilot programs, important through they are, need to be substantially expanded. What we would love to see is for true climate and energy literacy to be taught through climate-safe schools. These, as “living laboratories” for the community, could really prepare the next generation for making informed climate and energy decisions.