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The Climate Corner

Changing behaviors is a tall order, but essential if we are to mitigate the many adverse impacts of climate change. We all need to be more mindful of the consequences of the many small decisions we make every day, often without thinking. These decisions waste energy and pump greenhouse gases unnecessarily into our atmosphere.

Collectively, our choices make a huge difference. Idling your car for five minutes a day uses 40 gallons of gasoline annually, which means you can save $120 annually by idling less; taken across all vehicles in the U.S., less idling means billions of dollars of savings.

Our kids can be key drivers of sustainable choices, in their own lives, for their schools and in the choices their parents make. We have seen kids’ impact on recycling and smoking. We need their help on energy conservation, driving habits – on the myriad of everyday decisions that affect climate. Mindful decisions and habits will save families’ money and make our lives healthier. We need our kids’ help to preserve what we love about Wisconsin for them and for their kids’ kids.

The good news is that students in many Wisconsin schools are already adopting sustainable choices.

Schools across Wisconsin are engaging students in environmental issues, reducing school operating costs and increasing wellness. Making smart choices, saving money and increasing student and staff well-being creates a better environment for learning. This is a win-win-win, which is why so many Wisconsin schools are part of Wisconsin’s Green & Healthy Schools (GHS) initiative.

Free to participating schools, GHS is a collaborative effort of the Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education. To date more than 100 schools have joined the program, which provides a flexible road map for teachers, students and administrators to use to make their schools green and healthy.

In 2013, I met teachers, administrators and students involved in the program around the state. They told amazing stories. A school often gets involved in GHS because a single teacher inspires students to think about school operations.

In other cases, the spark comes from a maintenance person who gets attention by saving the district a nice chunk of money. Schools set different priorities; some focus on energy efficiency, while others tackle food, transportation or water issues.

In 2014, GHS will offer schools even more help, building momentum for GHS efforts.

To help schools facilitate broader engagement, the GHS team has turned to Cool Choices, a Wisconsin nonprofit that helps individuals and businesses reduce their contributions to climate change. In 2012, Cool Choices worked with teachers and students at Waunakee to encourage students to bike, walk and ride the bus to school. Cool Choices uses a game strategy to engage people in sustainable practices; they have implemented the game with a number of Wisconsin businesses interested in helping their employees save money by adopting sustainable practices at home.

Now, GHS Cool Choices has created a customized game for schools. The game is simple: teachers, staff and students can claim points for taking actions that make the school green and healthy—from simple things such as turning off lights or choosing healthy lunch options to bigger items such as conducting an energy audit or reducing car idling at the school and increasing car pooling.

The game format engages broader segments of the school community and makes everyone’s actions more visible, creating opportunities to celebrate the school’s progress. When progress is visible and celebrated, it creates momentum that can deliver yet more actions. The game creates a reinforcing circle where one set of actions can inspire yet another and another. Instead of focusing on the negative, the game creates an opportunity to identify and build upon the positive.

Additionally, the game creates a record of all the good things happening in a school, which can help teachers and administrators document their progress. Initial pilots suggest that when students see the progress made at school, they begin to advocate for green and healthy practices at home as well, often inspiring community-wide changes that mitigate climate change.

The Cool Choices game is free to all schools that participate in GHS (ghswisconsin.org). Joining GHS enables schools to reduce operating costs while enhancing wellness and student learning – every student deserves a green and healthy school.

Kathy Kuntz is the executive director of Cool Choices. With more than two decades of experience in energy efficiency and sustainability, Kuntz advocates for community approaches to our climate challenges. Learn more about Cool Choices’ innovative approach to behavior change at coolchoices.com.