“Who knows about those farting cows? Give it up for the farting cows!”
Farting cows are definitely gross-out funny, but they also produce methane, which contributes to global warming. That’s why they get a shout-out in the multimedia presentation on climate change that the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) offers free of charge to Bay Area high schools. ACE (not to be confused with ACES) is an Oakland-based nonprofit that aims to educate teenagers about climate change in a way that’s hip, engaging, and might actually inspire them to action.
“You’re just a regular teenager, driving to school, charging your cell phone, eating a burger made from a farting cow or two — and all of a sudden we’re in the middle of this planetary emergency!” educator Ambessa Cantave says in his presentation, featured in a groovy video on ACE’s website (watch it below). With that line, he captures the mood of ACE’S target audience: teens who feel helpless and hopeless in the face of a looming global disaster they did not create.
“We’re definitely not telling students that they’re bad,” said Alisha Fowler, a staff writer and educator for ACE. “We’re telling them what’s going on and that they didn’t cause it, but we all have to step in together and do something about climate change.”
ACE’s interactive presentations combine quirky animations with music and live educators, some of whom even treat the kids to freestyle rapping. (If those deathly dull school-safety assemblies I remember from back in the day had been delivered in rhyme, maybe I actually would have worn elbow pads rollerblading.)
The current state of climate education in California varies hugely from district to district, teacher to teacher, and textbook to textbook, says Fowler. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill last year that would have mandated climate-change education in public schools. ACE fills the void with what Fowler called “a narrative about what it means to be a high school student right now in our planet’s history.”
ACE was created a little over a year ago by Michael Haas, founder of a wind energy company called Orion Energy Group. A father of young children, Haas came to believe that the key to finding solutions for our climate crisis lies in the education and empowerment of tomorrow’s leaders. Today ACE, funded solely by Haas, employs several educators like Fowler and Cantave, who each make up to eight presentations a week to students everywhere from downtown Oakland to rural Mendocino. ACE has reached some 12,000 students in the Bay Area since presentations began this spring, and the group plans to reach 140,000 by the end of the year, through an expansion that’s bringing the program to Southern California and the Boston, Houston, and Chicago areas this fall.
Through its Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), ACE gives students opportunities to get involved in the fight against climate change after they’ve absorbed the information in the presentation. High school juniors and seniors who take action against climate change can apply for $2,500 college scholarships, and schools can be awarded up to $20,000 in grant money for committing to combating global warming.
One scholarship winner knew next to nothing about climate change before seeing the ACE presentation, but is now pioneering a composting program at her San Francisco high school. Another student got his school to put up solar panels, and went on to become an ACE student presenter. ACE’s student presenter trainings help high school students develop outreach and communication skills, giving them the tools to do their own climate change presentations in schools and communities.
“When we say taking action, we don’t expect every single student to solarize their school or lobby their congressman,” Fowler said. “[We're] trying to connect the dots between small actions and large actions and how they are all important.”
Fowler emphasized that the group doesn’t want to “moralize” — it wants to meet students where they are and empower them in tangible ways. For example, ACE’s website has a graphic suggesting 10 simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint: bike to school, wash laundry with cold water, unplug electronics that aren’t in use, etc. Its blog suggests having a pool party instead of turning on the A.C.
“These students really have a profound opportunity in this climate crisis to … re-envision our world,” Fowler said. “Any way that we can … give them the tools to know that that is actually possible is really powerful.”
Watch how ACE works its magic: