Climate of Change

'Cool Schools' program prompts students to prepare for tomorrow


T he freedoms and inspirations that led up to our information age arrived with a mighty price tag of environmental devastation attached, a price tag that we must now share with our children. How unfortunate that while we offer them really fast WiFi and a level of access to knowledge that is enough to make even the most lackadaisical quiver with curiosity and excitement, we are also serving up the seeming inevitability of earthly destruction.

How best to help our kids understand and navigate through this conundrum? How to instill them with feelings of joy and hope while making sure that they understand that this is not a time when any of us can afford to be overly thoughtless? I discovered one piece to this puzzle disguised as a relatively mild, and easy enough to instigate, curriculum change.

I met Maitreyi Siruguri, program coordinator for the Cool Schools Program, an offshoot of the Graton-based Climate Protection Campaign (CPC), over lunch. The Climate Protection Campaign is a nonprofit that has dedicated itself, with great success, to taking a proactive approach to dealing with what they call “the climate crisis.” Due largely to the efforts of the CPC, all nine Sonoma County cities and county governments have adopted a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 CO2 levels by the year 2015. If Sonoma County is to meet this bold goal, the CPC believes that education is critical. The up-and-coming generation of drivers, thinkers, workers and shoppers needs to be educated and given the tools necessary for creating change.

The Cool Schools program focuses on the integral role schools play in our ability to reduce the emissions that are contributing to climate change. Cool Schools takes a hands-on, student-led approach that aims to empower and educate entire campuses of adolescents, and seeks nothing less than to break down the outdated societal belief system that equates cars with freedom. In 2005, Cool Schools began to work with David Casey, an inspired statistics teacher at Analy High School in Sebastopol. The ultimate goal of the project was to reduce CO2 emissions from students commuting to and from campus.

The students in Casey’s class performed a school-wide survey to figure out the school’s emissions. According to their study, 62 percent of students drive to and from school alone, consume 2,506 gallons of gasoline and drive a total of 42,000 vehicle miles per week. Next, the students engaged local businesses in offering incentives for students who were willing to car pool, bike, skateboard, walk or take the bus to school. The idea was to reduce single-passenger commutes to and from school by 20 percent, a goal that they managed to achieve. In 2006, the Cool Schools program was adopted by Windsor High School, where students renamed it eCO2mmute, and set a target of reducing their schools greenhouse-gas emissions from student commutes by 25 percent.

In order for such a program to be successful and far-reaching, donations are vital, not just in the form of monetary support, but in the form of local incentives for participating students. I, for one, would be much more likely to ride my bike to school for a week if I got a free scoop of ice cream at the end of it. Siruguri tells me that Cool Schools is currently working on a tool kit that teachers can use to bring the program into their classroom. The tool kit will offer a five- to six-month program that takes only an hour per week of class time and yet offers a comprehensive campaign for initiating and maintaining emission reductions on campus.

As we finish up our lunch, Siruguri, a native of India, tells me of her recent travels. During her four-hour layover in Hong Kong, she saw banners on climate change, boldly displayed. In Bombay, she found flyers about carbon credits posted in a friend’s apartment building. Siruguri believes that climate change has become an issue for us all, wherever we are in the world. Because we are now raising a generation of children who are living through the experience of climate change, it is only fair that we offer them education on this issue—education that inspires both hope and action. The next generation needs to be empowered, not overwhelmed, by this daunting responsibility. Luckily for Sonoma County, Cool Schools is here to help students learn not just about the realities of climate change, but about the solutions.

For more information on the Climate Protection Campaign and the Cool Schools Program, visit or call 707.823.2665.