GREEN INITIATIVES to Combat Climate Change

April 15, 2009

Student readings describe the scientific controversy over "tipping points," the Obama-Biden energy program, and plans to green the Empire State Building. Following the readings are suggestions for student-led green initiatives for Earth Day - or any other day.

To the Teacher:

A 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.

Student Reading 1: 

Global warming and the Obama-Biden energy program

A question
Why 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.
"Because 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." (, 3/11/09, a publication of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies)
The world is heating up even faster than scientists predicted a few years ago.
"On 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)
"From 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."
In 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."
But 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)
The Obama-Biden energy program
The 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,"
The 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.
  • Eliminating 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."
  • Reducing 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."
President 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..." (, 2/5/09)
Can 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.
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why do you think that climate change has been called "a slow-moving catastrophe"?
3. What evidence do you know of that climate change is underway? If you don't know, how might you find out?
4. 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?
5. Explain "clean energy" and "alternative and renewable energy."
6. What environmental damage does burning coal cause? Is "clean coal" available? If you don't know, how might you find out?
7. What is "a cap-and-trade program"? What makes it controversial? If you don't know how might you find out?

Student Reading 2: 

Greening the Empire State Building

The 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.
Also 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.
But 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.
Upfront 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."
The retrofit 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 the basement.
"To 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."
Tenants 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."
Malkin 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)
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What kinds of renovations will be made on the Empire State Building and why?
3. Why do the owners of the building think it important to cut back on its carbon dioxide emissions?
4. Why aren't owners of other buildings acting immediately to make similar renovations?
5. What does Malkin mean by his concluding comment in the reading?

For student inquiry and action

The 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 See also and enter "energy" to search for additional ideas.
Two other sources for a school "green" initiative are at the Alliance to Save Energy
You might also suggest that students study energy use in their own homes. See "It Starts at Home" in National Geographic, March 2009 for suggestions.
Two 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.
For additional suggestions see "What Will President Obama Do About The Global Warming Time Bomb?" on TeachableMoment.Org.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: