When she's not in Antarctica, Pennycook teaches environmental science at Awhanee Middle School in Fresno, Calif. I sat in on a class where she talked to students about the science of global warming and about the real-world results she has seen first hand down in the Antarctic penguin habitat. The most significant thing she sees in this presidential campaign is that – after eight years of the Bush Administration pretty much denying that global warming is caused by human activity – both parties' nominees accept the scientific conclusion that climate change is real. While she hopes that will bring new sense of urgency at the top in Washington, she continues to work from the bottom up, telling students that doing things like saving energy at home is a step toward saving some penguins at the other end of the earth. She asks them the kids: "are you willing to turn out the lights in your room to save the penguins?"
Some people are doing much more than turning out the lights. John Fiscalini is a California dairy farmer who was shocked when people started pointing fingers at agriculture as one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases. He discovered the truth: Manure from his 3,000 cows produces huge amounts of methane, which is a particularly potent greenhouse gas. As a matter of fact, scientists believe that livestock worldwide have more impact on climate change than cars, trucks, and airplanes combined.
The proposals put forth by both presidential candidates provide encouragement and incentives for farmers like Fiscalini to clean up their emissions. But Fiscalini isn't waiting for the election. Right now, he's finishing construction of two methane digesters – big silos where all the manure will be collected, so the methane can be captured. The gas will then be pumped into a brand-new "green" generator, where it will produce more than enough electricity to run the whole farm, as well as the cheese factory where Fiscalini makes his prize-winning cheddar cheese.
But Fiscalini's experience shows it won't be easy or cheap to do the right thing. So far, making his dairy farm "green" has cost him about $2 million of his own money, and he's received another million in public and private grants. He plans on making some of his money back by selling his left-over electricity back to the local power company.
Fiscalini is the model for what many farmers may be asked to do as the nation steps up the fight against global warming after the election. But the complexity of climate change and the global nature of the problem means there's no way to calculate just how much John Fiscalini's efforts will slow the melting of Antarctic ice.
By Election Day, Jean Pennycook will be back with the penguins in Antarctica. She knows the threat is beyond the scope of any one person – even any one president. But she is encouraged that it finally seems climate change will be on the presidential agenda, no matter who is elected in November.