While the planet's future climate is being determined by lawmakers in Congress and the United Nations Conference of the Parties this December, some students who are too young to vote are taking their future into their own hands.
Oregon's Corvallis High School was named "America's most eco-friendly school" in the Earth Day Every Day School Challenge, where the combined effort of teacher Colleen Works, the CHS Green Club, and the school's Political Action Workshop and Economics of Conscious Consumption classes won $20,000 to put toward a large solar panel installation.
In all, 460 groups applied for the grant, evidence of the rapid growth in youth green initiatives across the country.
Teens are aware that climate change and its associated challenges will define their generation's work, said CHS Green Club Co-President Chris Becker. For many of them, the inspiration to take action doesn't come from fear as much as from the opportunity to create "cool" solutions.
"I think young people definitely understand this is a huge issue, probably bigger than anything any generation has ever faced before," Becker said.
"We showed in this past election that we can step up, and I hope that this generation will only become stronger, even more organized, and even better connected so we can solve this climate crisis and save our planet."
The CHS Green Club has an ambitious renewable energy goal for Corvallis High: It wants to install 100 kilowatts of solar panels within 10 years, providing the school with a third of its current electrical demand. As the club points out on its web site, the solar panels will serve multiple purposes by reducing the school's carbon footprint, lowering utility bills and educating students and the community.
With the Wal-Mart grant on top of their efforts so far, they'll needs about $30,000 more to complete the first 10 kW phase. The students aren't going it alone, though. The school's faculty and administrators, plus community leaders, are behind the project.
Principal Dawn Granger appeared in the grant application video along with solar installer Dave Eveland and Mayor Charlie Tomlinson. Superintendent Dawn Tarzian recently set up a sustainability steering committee for the Corvallis School District, with student representatives. And the Corvallis School Board made sustainability one of its top goals, committing to saving $100,000 by means of energy conservation.
The students and their adult mentors see the solar project as a potential model for other schools that want to pursue renewable energy solutions in partnership with local businesses and community members, Becker said.
With the Corvallis High project, the students are learning how to network, organize and partner with more experienced professionals who possess expertise in specific fields.
Green Club members met with multiple solar installers to get cost estimates, and to develop a model for financing and executing a project that would provide returns to the school in terms of energy costs saved, and returns on investment to the business.
"Because schools do not pay taxes, we cannot directly receive the tax credits that the state offers as incentives. We can, however, do a Business Energy Tax Credit Pass-Through where a local business would provide us with upfront money and would receive much of it back in tax credits to their business," Becker explained.
Corvallis as a city has also made impressive strides to reduce it's carbon emissions, topping the EPA's Green Power Communities list in January of this year and Country Home's 2008 Best Green Cities in America by purchasing more renewable energy than any other municipality in the nation.
Students at Oregon State University are largely responsible for the city's success. In 2007, the students passed a self-imposed green fee to purchase renewable energy for their campus. OSU is the largest purchaser of energy in the city, so the impact on the city's emissions as a whole has been considerable. OSU buys nearly 67 million kilowatt-hours of green power annually — enough to meet about 75 percent of its purchased electricity use.
The high school students who won the Earth Day Every Day challenge are part of a growing network of regional and national youth organizations including Cascade Climate Network and Sierra Student Coalition who address climate challenges by actively building solutions.
Although there is no official high school network as of the moment, CHS Green Club Co-President Claire Meints intends to set one up through the Cascade Climate Network by creating a regional high school coordinator who would be responsible for connecting high schools throughout Oregon and Washington.
Meints expressed a sentiment that has been echoed by other teens and young adults: While it is important to be engaged and to let your political leaders know where you stand on the issues,
"I think there is a difference in the way that the older generation of environmentalists view the future and what needs to be done. From what I have seen, there is a tendency for them to focus on fixing problems, which of course is important. However, I think something this generation does well is to address solutions; positive measures to take as opposed to negative ones.
"An example: Instead of merely gathering to put ourselves in front of a coal mine to rally to shut it down, we also try to install alternative energy."
Young people today will live out their lives in a world where either climate change and related challenges have made survival progressively harder, or where people have risen up to creatively confront these challenges head-on.
Today's students don't have the time to wait for the perfect policy to begin taking positive action to re-invent their livelihoods, and why should they?
(Photos: CHS Green Club)