Connecting the Dots and Taking Action on Climate Change

By ANNE MCDONNELL

I have a friend named Carrie who writes about climate change where she lives on an island in British Columbia. She thinks about it. She cries about it. And she navigates decisions in her life by a magnetic climate needle, telling her how much carbon she is allowed, telling her not to fly ever, telling her to take the bus from Canada to Mexico.  

This climate needle points her to store carbon in soil by covering the garden in thick layers of seaweed she hauls in buckets from the beach to grow low-carbon food like acorn squash that keeps its sweet orange flesh ready all winter without refrigeration.

With Carrie, I can talk about climate change and start in the middle. I don’t have to define any terms, or find common ground about what it is to live in this time of our planet’s ecological unraveling. I can start smack in the middle of the question about how we live as humans in this time of climate chaos.

What Can We Do?

I think a lot about how crazy it feels that we know what is happening, what we are doing, and we wake up, drive to work, pay bills, surf the net, go out to dinner, make love, make art, and generally carry on as if this whole vast, mysterious, beautiful living planet were not teetering on the edge of collapse.

But this is the time we are living in. And I’m trying to learn what this means and what this asks of me and us.

It’s hard not to compare myself to my friend Carrie and feel guilty about my own choices. When it comes to climate change, it is easy to feel powerless, overwhelmed and guilty for the ways our lives contribute to the problem.

Climate change is big and overwhelming. But the scale of change needed to recreate our lives without the use of fossil fuels is so huge that we can start almost anywhere and make a difference.

Student Sustainability leader Emily Peck adjusting the irrigation. timer for our compost system.
Student Sustainability leader Emily Peck adjusting the irrigation. timer for our compost system.

What I am realizing is that it feels good to take steps and do something. As my friend Carrie reminds me, a lot of what we can do to help with climate change can also help to reconnect us with what we need and love ”“ food, water, energy, and the earth where we live.

Connecting the Dots at IAIA

So what can we do about the ways we contribute to climate change at IAIA?

SSL students David Early, Russell Frye, and Amber Morningstar Byars working on final repairs and plantings in the pond in the Haouzous Student Sustainability Garden.
SSL students David Early, Russell Frye, and Amber Morningstar Byars working on final repairs and plantings in the pond in the Haouzous Student Sustainability Garden.

Stay with me to connect some of the dots around climate change here on our campus.

When we turn on the lights or fire up our computers at IAIA, we are using the electrical grid owned by PNM. PNM’s power in New Mexico comes from 21 percent nuclear power, 58 percent coal, and 14 percent natural gas. Only 7 percent of our power here comes from clean renewable solar and wind resources.

With our abundance of sun and wind in NM, why are we stuck with polluting energies that are contributing to climate change? Let’s connect the dots a bit further.

 Negative Impacts on Indigenous Communities

As a tribal college, we are powered by industries that disproportionately affect Indigenous communities in New Mexico. Think of the toxic legacies of uranium mining for nuclear power on the Navajo reservation.

Think of fracking for natural gas and its effects on water and air in Native communities. Think of the draining of the Navajo aquifer for the coal industry on and surrounding Black Mesa.

Think of the cancer, lung disease, asthma, and other health issues in Native communities related to these extractive industries.

 Opposition to PNM’s Plan

Right now, here in New Mexico, we’re in the midst of a local power dispute with huge consequences. In 2017, PNM will be required to close half of the San Juan coal plant, one of the oldest and dirtiest coal plants in the country that sits right outside the Navajo nation.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for New Mexico to lower our carbon emissions and replace dirty coal with renewable energy. But PNM’s plan is to replace this coal power with billions of dollars of investment in more coal and more nuclear energy.

So New Energy Economy, a local environmental nonprofit, is teaming up with Native communities and activists, and other environmental and governmental groups to oppose PNM’s plan and instead replace coal with clean energy from sun and wind.

 Unplug, Zero Out

As we work to lower our own carbon footprint at IAIA, we can think about how we are unplugging from fossil fuels that are contributing to the global crisis of climate change as well as harming the peoples, lands, waters, and cultures of our neighboring Native communities.

We can align ourselves with Indigenous climate justice groups like the Black Mesa Water Coalition that are advocating for solar projects and green jobs to replace toxic coal. IAIA has a campus “Climate Action Plan” that we developed as part of our commitment to lowering our carbon footprint to zero.

Along with many other colleges and universities, IAIA, under Dr. Martin’s leadership, signed the American College and University President Climate Commitment to model solutions to the climate crisis.

 IAIA’s Sustainability Projects

We can start anywhere. Last year, our Student Sustainability Leadership class installed a water harvesting system to capture the rainwater that falls on the roof of the academic building. This water was running out of drain pipes that were eroding and degrading the area below the parking lot outside the west side of the building.

Student Sustainability leaders Justus Benally, Amanda Beardsley, Jacob Olascoaga, and Kevin Rafael working on installing our rainwater catchment tanks.
Student Sustainability leaders Justus Benally, Amanda Beardsley, Jacob Olascoaga, and Kevin Rafael working on installing our rainwater catchment tanks.

We installed two underground tanks, and three above ground tanks with a solar system that pumps this water, stores 6,500 gallons, and then releases it to an irrigated orchard in a passive water harvesting system below the tanks.

SSL students work with permaculture and restoration instructor, Joel Glanzberg, on our passive water harvesting system.
SSL students work with permaculture and restoration instructor, Joel Glanzberg, on our passive water harvesting system.

This passive water system is a rock-lined system of berms and basins planted with native grasses, shrubs, and fruit trees to slow the water and restore this area into what will become a rich shaded area with food for people, pollinators, and other creatures.

This year, we will be installing a solar thermal and solar PV system into our campus greenhouse so that we use clean energy from the sun rather than fossil fuels to power our greenhouse as we grow food on campus. We hope this project is just the beginning of building solar energy on campus so that we get all of our power at IAIA from the sun or other clean renewable resources.

 Indigenous Responses

Native communities are on the front lines of climate change as they are disproportionately affected by polluting fossil fuel industries and by the ways the changing climate is affecting their places and cultural practices.

Native communities are also the homes of the Indigenous knowledge and values that can help lead this transition away from fossil fuels. Many Indigenous communities are already adapting to climate change and leading in solutions with traditional technologies and green energy. We need to hear these stories and voices.

This year, IAIA students are interviewing Indigenous elders, activists and community members about how climate change is affecting their communities and how they are responding. We will collect these “Indigenous Narratives of Climate Change” on a webpage resource on our IAIA library website.

The Student Sustainability Leaders will host a spring art show on climate change and Indigenous climate justice.   We invite everyone in the IAIA community to participate in the art show and in the gathering of stories related to climate change. Art can speak to this crisis and to the restoration and revisioning of our lives in powerful ways. Please join us.

(Photos by Anne McDonnell and Dana Richards)

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