As temperatures continue rising due to climate change, New Mexico will see decreased surface water flows, continued groundwater declines, more forest die-offs, and hotter and larger wildfires. Warming will affect what crops can be grown, where tourists might still want to visit, and the viability of our broader economy. New Mexicans will also face new public health problems and probably rethink where homes are built and how vehicles are powered.
In other words, the future isn’t just a warmer one. It’s a trickier one.
More than six years ago, Congress requested that the National Science Foundation create an education initiative focused specifically on climate change. In a 2011 summary of a workshop on the issue, the authors of the National Academy of Sciences report write that the nation seems unprepared:
As one of the nation’s “hot spots” of observed climate change, New Mexico is ripe for that conversation. And not just among certain teachers, at individual schools, or within households with children and teens. That’s because the future of the state will depend upon the upcoming generation of hydrologists, engineers, biologists, epidemiologists, geographers, farmers, and dreamers.
Over the past few years, as I’ve immersed myself in reporting on climate change impacts, I’ve started wondering if adults are too limited by our experiences and expectations to think creatively about all the possible solutions to these challenges. I’ve also been thinking a lot about what’s called “climate literacy” and how children and teens learn about climate change and science in school.
In New Mexico, the topic of climate change doesn’t specifically show up in statewide education standards until a mention in the eighth grade science education section.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to raise the issue, even during a school year already crammed with topics and tests. Climate change issues straddle many subjects already taught, including physics, chemistry, biology, and ecology. And there are great examples to be found. For instance, Truman Middle School’s Christopher Oglesby fits the topic into American Studies.
At a workshop for teachers last fall, he told me that he and his students talk about things like the Dust Bowl, receding glaciers, Hurricane Katrina, and the California drought. “How can you not have that conversation in this day?” he asked in the interview. “Talking about these things fuels creativity and critical thinking.”
Oglesby says he has four children of his own—and he knows that someday, they’ll need to be solving the problems we’re just starting to face today.
At the Santa Fe Indian School, a middle and high school run by the state’s 19 sovereign pueblos, many students identify climate change as an educational priority.
They want more information because they see how warming temperatures are already affecting farming, traditional ways of life, wildlife, and wildfires, says the school’s principal, Dr. Felisa Gulibert.
Santa Fe Indian School students also learn about climate in the school’s community-based education program and take it on for their Senior Honors Projects, says Gulibert. During their senior year, each student must choose to study a challenge their tribal community is facing. In an annual, year-end symposium, they share what they’ve learned with the school, their community, and the public.
“Climate change is one of the main topics in kids’ minds,” she says. “They work with their communities and different organizations to promote that awareness and also to help find solutions to the challenge.”
The groundwork for climate literacy can be laid during children’s early years, too.
Before graduating from Albuquerque’s Bosque School last spring, Jacqueline Greene worked with two fourth grade classes at her alma mater, Chamiza Elementary School. She hadn’t learned about climate change as an elementary school student—and wanted to change that.
That’s why she developed a curriculum on climate change that combined art and science for her senior project at the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Project, a 20-year old program at the school that combines scientific data collection, community collaboration, and educational outreach to the area’s public schools.
Greene started off by teaching the eight- and nine-year olds about vocabulary words – like ecosystem, climate, weather, and habitat – and then moved onto topics like greenhouse gases, local wildlife species, and how warming is affecting habitat.
On the last day, she asked them to repeat an activity they did the first day: draw how a New Mexico species might be affected by warming temperatures. “The art component was important because these are eight- to nine-year olds, so drawing it was important,” she says. And she wanted to see which species resonated with kids the most.
(Spoiler alert: they loved the pika best. Small mammals that live above treeline in alpine terrain, pika can’t adapt to warming by migrating any higher into the mountains. As the region warms, pika populations aren’t expected to tolerate the loss of snowpack.)
Teaching younger kids about climate and weather, local species and ecosystems, and the impacts humans have on the planet helps them understand how human actions affect the world all around them, Greene believes.
Adults might not always see that as a positive thing. When she presented her project at a conference in Arizona, Greene says a professor complimented her, but questioned teaching young children about climate change, a topic that might scare them.
“She said I shouldn’t be exposing them and making them learn about this too young,” says Greene. “But I disagreed. I don’t see how sugarcoating this big thing that’s happening is a good idea.”
She mentions a timeline of life on Earth that her own teacher, the Bosque School’s Dan Shaw, shows his classes. “Humans are just a blip at the end,” she says. “The fact that we can make that much impact in such a short amount of time, I don’t know if what we’ve done can be fixed. But we need to do something.”
And she says, it’s her generation that’s going to have to really deal with climate change and its impacts.
“We don’t have the time or the ability to wait any longer,” she says. “We have to start to take responsibility.”