Taking Climate Education to the Streets

Science museums, aquariums and other “informal educators” walk a tightrope when it comes to climate change.

By Marjorie Sun

The California Academy of Sciences and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have a big advantage that some educational institutions in other parts of the country don’t: most of their visitors — who tend to be Californians — believe that climate change is real. That means their global warming exhibits can focus on solutions, for example, rather than laying out the basics of atmospheric science.

Californians’ concern about climate change has translated into political support for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. According to survey results released in July by the Public Policy Institute of California, two-thirds of Californians strongly back the pioneering state law known as AB 32. The law requires a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. And the recent defeat of Proposition 23 by 22 percentage points would appear to affirm that support.

Californians appear to buck some national trends on climate change issues. A declining number of Americans say there is solid evidence that the world is warming. The number dropped from 79% in 2006, when AB 32 was passed, to 59% this year, according to a survey just released by the Pew Research Center.  The number who think scientists agree that the world is warming due to human activity fell from 59% to 44% over the same period. Even more telling, perhaps, is that the ratio of “yes” to “no” answers to the latter question for Republicans (30:58) is almost the mirror image of that for Democrats (59:32).

New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer details in a recent, in-depth article that billionaires David and Charles Koch, titans of the oil industry, have been spending millions of dollars waging a covert disinformation campaign to thwart climate change legislation in the United States.

Aboard the Bio-Bus

A local organization has launched a mobile counter-offensive. The Alliance for Climate Education, a non-profit based in Oakland, has created a hip, multi-media presentation spiced with animation and rock music to reach teens. Think An Inconvenient Truth goes MTV. The alliance has shown it to more than 420,000 high schoolers across the nation in the past year. The presentation teaches teens the basics about climate change and urges them to “do one thing” to fight it.

Alliance staffers also have tricked out an old school bus with clean tech, driving it to schools and museums to showcase renewable technology. The blue bio-bus runs on used cooking oil collected from restaurants. Solar panels on the bus charge cell phones and computers on board.

Unmasking the Cow

The model cow in the Monterey Bay Aquarium climate change exhibit originally appeared with a gas mask, which has since been removed. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Meanwhile, keeping the climate change exhibits up-to-date scientifically is a concern for the museums. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, outfitting a life-size model cow with a gas mask was prompted in part by a 2006 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO study said that industrial production of livestock in general, including cattle, pigs, and poultry, accounts for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. But another FAO study released in April — about the same time the climate change exhibit opened — examined the GHG emissions for the dairy industry alone, not beef production. It concluded that dairy production contributes just four percent of emissions. The study (PDF download), along with howls of protests from the local dairy industry, helped convince the aquarium to unmask the Holstein.

One last tidbit about interactive exhibits: One of the most popular — common to the Academy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium — is surprisingly low-tech. Thousands of visitors write on comment cards about what they can do to fight climate change and hang them on display boards there. One of them, in a child’s handwriting, read “Reduce, reuse, recycle and homework is bad for the environment.”

Hear Marjorie’s companion radio feature on KQED’s Quest radio program, Monday morning. A version of this post also appears on the Quest blog.

Low-Carbon Fuels in Your Future

After years of study and a day of marathon testimony in Sacramento, state regulators have adopted the world’s first low-carbon standard (LCFS) for transportation fuels. Only one member of the California Air Resources Board, John Telles, voted against adoption.

During nearly six hours of testimony by almost 100 speakers, businesses lined up both for and against the new rules. As Marjorie Sun reported for us this week, some claimed that calculations for the carbon footprints of different fuels–especially ethanol–were not even-handed. Speaker after speaker assailed the LCFS as being the product of “incomplete analysis” or just bad math (public testimony begins about an hour into the webcast).

But Daniel Sperling, a UC Davis professor and member of the Air Board, calls it “government at its best.”

“There’s been a huge amount of effort,” he said, ” in working with the oil companies, working with the electricity companies, working with the environmental community, working with the biofuels companies, to try to get this really done right.”

Though numerous speakers challenged the view that it was done right, both Sperling and Air Board head Mary Nichols seemed to leave the door open to additional tweakage of the regulations. “In the end, it’s a science-based policy,” said Sterling. “There are a lot of pieces of this that we’re not certain exactly the best way to do it but we’ve got the framework of a really outstanding policy and an important policy. And we’ve made the commitment to work with all the different stakeholders in refining it, to make sure that it really works best.”

Small-business and environmental justice groups locked arms to decry the cost of the new rules. Some cited a report from Sacramento-based Sierra Research estimating $3.8 billion in increased fuel costs by 2020, if the LCFS takes effect.

An “expert working group” is due to report back on January 1, with possible suggestions for fine-tuning the plan.

Board member Ron Roberts summed up the proposed regulation by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: “It may not be the end or even the beginning of the end, but it’s the end of the start,” said Roberts (falling somewhat short of Churchillian eloquence but point taken).

The new rules are designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation 10 percent by 20-20.  Sperling is now headed to Capitol Hill, to testify before Congress on national legislation. California’s process is being closely watched in Washington, where pending federal carbon legislation is widely seen to be modeled after California’s plan.

The Battle Over Biomass

This week, the California Air Resources Board is expected to pass a controversial new standard that measures the carbon footprint of transportation fuels. Reporter Marjorie Sun filed a story for Climate Watch on the measure and why the ethanol industry is fighting it. She provides some additional insights here:

The proposed low carbon fuel standard is part of a broad effort by the California regulators to roll greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels by 2020.

biofuel pumpSlashing carbon emissions from cars and trucks is a big part of the state’s game plan. That’s because transportation accounts for 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. A whopping 96 percent of the fuel sources that power our cars and trucks is petroleum-based. Right now, the bulk of ethanol sold in California–and the rest of the United States for that matter—is corn-based. (Brazil makes its ethanol fuel from sugar cane, which has a smaller carbon footprint.) U.S. producers argue that the proposed Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) would make corn-based ethanol less competitive in the marketplace because of the way it calculates emissions. Pacific Ethanol was the biggest ethanol producer and marketer in California– until recently. With the drop in gasoline prices over the past year, demand for ethanol has plummeted. Over the past several months the company suspended operations at its two production plants in California and stopped construction of a third facility. In March, it filed for loan extensions with its creditors. So the new fuel standard could deliver yet another blow to the company. Hence, ethanol interests have been putting up a fight. But the Air Resources Board is counting on the proposed standard to spur innovation in the alternative fuels market, to reduce carbon emissions. The state says it’s hoping to “expand the size of the current renewable fuels market in California (already the largest in the nation) by three-to-five times. Instead of today’s corn, over half of the ethanol is likely to be made from extremely low-carbon, cellulosic feedstocks such as agricultural waste and switchgrass. There are numerous startups in California working on cellulosic ethanol. They’re experimenting with a wide range of plants, from switchgrass to algae, as potential sources of ethanol. Getting a new fuel to market, however, requires enormous capital costs. The state is projecting that by 2020, Californians will have bought more than 7 million alternative-fuel and hybrid vehicles. That’s about 20 times greater than today. But in these tight economic times, folks are hanging onto their old cars. So it’s not clear how fast Priuses and plug-ins will replace the carbon-spewing cars on the road today.

Sun’s radio story aired Wednesday on The California Report.

Climate Coverage: From Drywall to Rubber Ducks

You just never know where the next climate story will come from.

This week on KQED’s Quest Radio, Marjorie Sun reports on how some of the most common building materials are among the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturing your most basic buttcrack essentials like drywall, steel and cement requires vast amounts of energy. Now, several Silicon Valley start-ups are looking for cleaner solutions and some of their efforts are drawing major venture capital.

Then from the “concrete” to the…well, how would you describe this?  I’m not sure but it’s one of my favorite climate experiments of the year: NASA Deploys Rubber Ducks for Cryosphere Clues. Scientists from California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are behind this BBC story that probably should’ve been posted on April 1st.

We’re all pulling for these rubberized cryonauts, hoping they don’t end up in an endless swirl as part of the giant Pacific plastic trash vortex that David Gorn reported on in August.