to Combat Climate Change
To the Teacher:
growing mountain of scientific evidence demonstrates that climate change is "a
slow-moving catastrophe," as climate change investigative reporter Elizabeth
Kolbert asserts. The first student reading below presents two snapshots of that
catastrophe, the scientific controversy over "tipping points" and an
overview of the Obama-Biden energy program. The second reading discusses plans
to green the Empire State Building. The readings are followed by discussion questions
and suggestions for student-led green initiatives and inquiries for Earth Day,
April 22--or any other day.
Global warming and the Obama-Biden energy program
don't most Americans know much about climate change or think it's a priority for
attention or action? An interviewer asked this question of Elizabeth Kolbert,
an award-winning investigative reporter for the New Yorker on climate change
and author of Field Notes From A Catastrophe.
it's the economy that really affecting lives right now," she answered. "And
climate change has often been described as a slow-moving catastrophe, and it's
precisely the kind of issue that once you actually really feel the dire effects
in your own life, then it's way too late. That's what the science tells us and
what scientists have been telling us for 25 years now really. So it's a very,
very difficult problem for the political system to deal with." (www.e360.yale.edu,
3/11/09, a publication of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental
world is heating up even faster than scientists predicted a few years ago.
the side of a road somewhere in southeastern Australia sits a man in a motionless
pickup truck, considering the many ways in which his world has dried up,"
writes Amy Toensing in her recent National Geographic article. "The
two most obvious ways are in plain view. Just beyond his truck, his dairy cattle
graze on the roadside grass
.The heifers are feeding along a public road--'not
strictly legal,' the man concedes, but what choice does he have? There is no more
grass on the farm he owns. His land is now a desert scrubland where the slightest
breeze lifts a hazy wall of dust
.Though Australians have routinely weathered
dry spells, the current seven-year drought is the most devastating in the country's
117 years of recorded history." (Amy Toensing, "Australia's Dry Run,"
National Geographic, April 2009)
March 1979 to March 2008 the average ice area in the Barents Sea [part of the
Arctic Ocean north of Norway and Russia] declined by nearly 30 percent, wrote
Bruce Barcott in National Geographic (April 2009). "In 2007 and 2008
the sea-ice extent dipped to the lowest on record."
past warming periods there have been "mass extinctions, of more than half
the species on the planet," according to Dr. James Hanson, director of the
NASA Goddard Institute for Space (6/23/08). "We must move beyond fossil fuels
eventually. Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free
energy promptly." Dr. Hanson recently wrote in a London newspaper: "The
climate is nearing tipping points. If we do not change course, we'll hand our
children a situation that is out of their control."
other scientists say that the term "tipping point" can be misleading,
and that there is little hard evidence to back up predictions of catastrophe.
"It would be far better to spend less time musing over tipping points,"
said Christopher Green, an economist who studies energy and climate at McGill
University, Canada. "Whether the probability is high, medium, or low, I think
the response is the same: climate cannot be stabilized without an energy technology
revolution. One way or the other, we just need to get busy." ("Among
Climate Scientists, a Dispute Over 'Tipping Points," an article by Andrew
Revkin in the New York Times, 3/29/09)
Obama-Biden energy program
Obama administration introduced its program on energy and the global climate crisis
with these words: "The energy challenges our country faces are severe and
have gone unaddressed for far too long. Our addiction to foreign oil doesn't just
undermine our national security and wreak havoc on our environment--it cripples
our economy and strains the budgets of working families all across America. President
Obama and Vice President Biden have a comprehensive plan to invest in alternative
and renewable energy, end our addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate
crisis and create millions of new jobs." ("Energy and the Environment,"
plan includes an array of programs, among them
Creating five million new jobs with a $150 billion investment "to build a
clean energy future" through energy efficiency programs such as use of renewable
sources for electricity (solar, wind, biofuels), weatherizing millions of homes,
and developing and using "clean coal" technology.
oil imports within 10 years by increasing automobile fuel economy standards, building
1 million plug-in hybrid cars getting up to 150 miles per gallon by 2015, establishing
a national low carbon standard, and promoting "responsible domestic production
of oil and natural gas."
our greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming by implementing a
cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and making
the U.S. "a leader on climate change."
Obama said: "Washington may not be ready to get serious about energy independence,
but I am. And so are you. And so are the American people. Inaction is not an option
that is acceptable to me and it's certainly not acceptable to the American people
the president do all he wants to on energy and climate change? No. Already he
faces growing criticisms from industries and from Congress. Can you do all you
want? No. But you can do something.
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
Why do you think that climate change has been called "a slow-moving catastrophe"?
What evidence do you know of that climate change is underway? If you don't know,
how might you find out?
Consider and explain each of the elements in the introduction to the Obama-Biden
energy plan. They say that "our addiction to foreign oil" is undermining
our national security; wreaking environmental havoc; crippling our economy; and
straining "the budgets of working families all across America." If you
need more information on a particular item, how would you find it?
Explain "clean energy" and "alternative and renewable energy."
What environmental damage does burning coal cause? Is "clean coal" available?
If you don't know, how might you find out?
What is "a cap-and-trade program"? What makes it controversial?
If you don't know how might you find out?
Greening the Empire State Building
Empire State Building stands at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City.
Its enormous features include 102 stories, 2.6 million square feet, 6,500 windows
and 73 elevators.
enormous are its greenhouse gas emissions. Seventy-eight percent of New York City's
greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, including the Empire State Building.
Most of these emissions come from the use of electricity and natural gas.
the Empire State Building will soon start cutting the 105,000 metric tons of carbon
dioxide emissions it generates each year. For the building is going green. Its
owners announced on April 6 that they will launch "a renovation this summer
expected to reduce the skyscraper's energy use by 38 percent a year by 2013, at
an annual savings of $4.4 million." This makeover is "meant to serve
as a model for other office buildings around the world," said Anthony E.
Malkin, president of Wien & Malkin, which supervises the building on behalf
of the owners, the Malkin family and the Helmsley estate.
costs are "often a deterrent for retrofitting older buildings," reported
the New York Times, "but the energy savings for the building, built
in 1931, are expected to pay back those costs in only about three years."
of the building includes eight projects, among them upgrading the electrical and
ventilation systems and installing new electronic systems. The designers told
the Times that "about half the reduction in energy use will be achieved
in the first two years of the project as they retrofit the double hung operable
windows, insulate behind radiators and rebuild chillers in the cooling plant in
avoid transportation-related pollution, the windows will be redone on site, by
adding a layer of coated film between two glass panes to increase insulation,
at a rate of 50 windows a day."
will monitor their own energy use through computers that will track how much is
being used and where. Skanska, a Swedish construction company with 80 employees,
has already completed a green renovation of its office space with such new energy-saving
installations as "daylight sensors to conserve energy and dual-flush toilets
to avoid wasting water."
said, "If we don't change our unsustainable practices and the amount of energy
we consume, if we don't make our city more efficient, we're toast." (Mireya
Navarro, "The Empire State Building Plans a Growth Spurt, Environmentally,"
New York Times, 4/7/09)
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
What kinds of renovations will be made on the Empire State Building and why?
Why do the owners of the building think it important to cut back on its carbon
Why aren't owners of other buildings acting immediately to make similar renovations?
What does Malkin mean by his concluding comment in the reading?
student inquiry and action
March issue of American Teacher suggests that you "Help start a 'green'
initiative at your school" and includes a number of suggestions about how
to do so. Read this issue in pdf format at www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_teacher/
See also www.nytimes.com/learning
and enter "energy" to search for additional ideas.
other sources for a school "green" initiative are at the Alliance to
and PBS (www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/teachers/lessonplans/science/green_schools.html)
might also suggest that students study energy use in their own homes. See "It
Starts at Home" in National Geographic, March 2009 for suggestions.
especially controversial aspects of the Obama energy program for possible student
investigation include his proposals for cap-and-trade to reduce carbon emissions
and "clean coal" development.
additional suggestions see "What Will President
Obama Do About The Global Warming Time Bomb?" on TeachableMoment.Org.
essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome
your comments. Please email them to: email@example.com.