Facing down climate change, UNM-Taos students tackle 'the biggest thing on planet Earth'

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 12/6/18

When Adrianna Marquez thinks about climate change, she thinks about her two little boys."It's happening and it's unfair for anyone to ignore the facts," said Marquez, …

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Facing down climate change, UNM-Taos students tackle 'the biggest thing on planet Earth'

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When Adrianna Marquez thinks about climate change, she thinks about her two little boys.

"It's happening and it's unfair for anyone to ignore the facts," said Marquez, a 30-year-old Taoseña. "As human beings, it's our part to clean up after ourselves. It's common sense."

Marquez, who graduated from Taos High School in 2006 and served in the United States Army, is part of Northern New Mexico-Climate Change Corp, a program at University of New Mexico-Taos that's seen marked success in the four years since its creation.

The program trains local students, including young people right out of high school and adults looking for a midcareer shift, to be scientists and leaders tackling climate change, what program director Brooke Zanetell called "the biggest thing happening on planet earth."

First and foremost, students like Marquez are learning the science behind why climate change is happening -- namely, that greenhouse gases like methane (a byproduct of oil and gas drilling such as in the Four Corners region, for example) in the atmosphere trap heat. Over the course of decades and centuries, the greenhouse gases and trapped heat have contributed to a warming climate with more erratic weather.

But even more than learning the causes of climate change, students in the NNM-CCC program are learning the tools to respond to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

And that is what the country and world absolutely need, according to several recent reports about climate change.

The report that garnered the most attention was the fourth installment of the annual climate assessment, a document created by 13 federal agencies under the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The program was created in 1989 to understand, assess, predict and respond to global warming.

The report was released on Black Friday (Nov. 23), a move many people saw as an attempt to bury its findings on a day when "everyone is checked out of the news as much as possible," Zanetell said.

While Zanetell and local environmentalists interviewed for this story all agreed the federal government's assessment didn't say anything new about the science of climate change, it did highlight that impacts of climate change are happening now and that efforts are underway to deal with it.

"I haven't met anyone not touched by less water, less snow, less predictable frost dates, whether they raise alfalfa or work at the ski valley," she said. Indeed, less water availability and more frequent wildfires are two hallmarks of climate change in the Southwest.

Yet a large section of the report deals with adaptation and mitigation. Adaptations are efforts to cut down on the current and future impacts of climate change while mitigation are efforts to cut emissions and slow the rate of warming globally.

Even though adaptation and mitigation efforts are more common in recent years, the climate is changing faster than efforts to adapt to it, the climate assessment warns.

Rita Daniels, an environmental reporter and another student in the NNM-CCC, saw how fast the changes were when she returned to New Mexico after being gone for nearly 15 years.

"I started spending a lot of time in the woods on the weekends, backpacking through every wilderness area in the state. It was on these sojourns into the wild that I realized weather patterns were shifting (and) winter temperatures were a lot warmer then they had been when I was a kid," Daniels said.

"I started asking myself what more could I be doing other than exploring these issues in my reporting," Daniels said. So she joined the NNM-CCC.

Daniels is one of about 50 students who've gone through the program, which was funded by a federal grant. Students earn their associates degree while at UNM-Taos and then transfer to New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas to finish out their bachelor's degree.

The collaboration has been wildly successful, with 100 percent job placement in federal agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The grant funding runs out this summer. However, UNM-Taos recently established a formal Natural Resource Management program, meaning the emphasis on climate change and the relationships that have helped student success are likely to expand.

While Daniels thinks it's important for everyone to "understand the big picture on a landscape level" and demand action by local and national politicians, she also hopes people will take small but meaningful actions. "Catch your rainwater and be mindful of your use of natural resources. These all sound like really basic things but collectively can have a huge impact."

Marquez agrees. That's why she's raising her sons to recycle and educating her family on the lifestyle changes that Taoseños can make to be part of a global effort to deal with the changing climate.

"Humans thrive on crisis. I love that the word 'crisis' means both challenge and opportunity," Zanetell said. "Every one of us has the capacity to rise to the occasion."

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