Fighting to save the world as we know it

The Sangre de Cristos, with their beautiful views, abundant recreation opportunities and dazzling displays of fall color, are a beloved part of life for Santa Fe-area residents, but how long do we have to enjoy their beauty? Some climate scientists say it might not be very long if immediate action is not taken to counter climate change. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

Witnessing a sunset painting the sky above the Pecos mountains or hiking along a babbling stream near the Santa Fe ski basin are beloved experiences for Santa Fe-area residents. But is it possible the time that New Mexicans have left to enjoy an undamaged ecosystem might be coming to an end?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have a 12-year window to reverse the effects of climate change before it’s too late. And some folks feel a growing need to take a stand against its effect and fight to protect the environment.

Among them is Rowan Dwyer, who will be a senior this fall at Santa Fe Prep and hopes to see legislation passed that could change New Mexico’s energy policies. “Frankly, to me, climate change is the most pressing issue,” Dwyer said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Some state lawmakers agree.

“This type of work in regard to climate change needs to have happened yesterday,” said Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, adding he feels New Mexico could be an example to other states in “turning around the types of negative activities that our world is doing to our environment.”

Lente envisions a future where New Mexico relies almost entirely on renewable energy, building opportunities for young people pursuing careers in STEM and creating new jobs for those currently working in the oil and gas industry. “They will then have the opportunity to stay in New Mexico, work in New Mexico and raise their families in New Mexico,” he said.

Despite opposition, Lente has been working on issues concerning oil and gas drilling in the state. In this year’s legislative session, he partnered with the state’s land commissioner, Stephanie Garcia Richard, to pass a bill that would raise royalties on oil and gas leases. The money could go toward education and ensure that oil and gas companies can’t come to New Mexico and drain our natural resources without compensating us fairly.

Jordan Smith, founder and executive director of Climate Advocates Voces Unidas, said that in the short-term picture, “oil and gas are here to stay.” However, Smith said the government is focusing on “diversification rather than complete elimination of oil and gas.” She believes there is huge potential for renewable energy and climate solutions in our state, starting with youth involvement. “I think that what young people need to do today is to think about the technological solutions,” she said.

State Environment Secretary James C. Kenney, told Generation Next that younger generations must be drawn into the issue to enact positive change.

“We as a state are trying to ensure there are opportunities for everyone to plug in,” Kenney said. “[The Environment Department] can’t solve the climate change issue without all of New Mexico participating. While we have some ideas about how to move forward, we need experts and citizens from all parts of the state.”

Still, conservationists, including Bianca Sopoci-Belknap co-director at Earth Care and associate director at New Energy Economy, worry that even with all the help in the world, time is running out.

“Climate change is not a single issue, it’s an existential issue,” Sopoci-Belknap said. “We are failing to recognize the crisis.”

In the coming years, the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts a very unstable climate, including more volatile seasons. Temperatures will rise at a projected increase of about 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit every 10 years. For our water-deficient state, this means that droughts will become more severe and wildfires more intense. Environmental changes might even decrease revenue from tourism, which our state depends on. In addition, ecosystems will suffer as certain habitats become uninhabitable.

The good news is that teens recognize the need to play their part.

Tabatha Hirsch, 17, has been involved in working against climate change since she began taking part in Wood Gormley Elementary School’s Go Green Club, which helped spur a ban on plastic bags in Santa Fe.

“I think we are really aware that things need to be done and we are accepting of making changes, which is exciting,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch and Dwyer are both part of a group called Students for the Next Generation. They have been involved with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, working for the passage of a carbon fee and dividend, which would place a tax on carbon. They were successful in passing a memorial to study carbon pricing in New Mexico, but Hirsch said the group has also encountered obstacles.

“It’s really discouraging to see that [people] working in government to help others is harder to find these days,” Hirsch said. “I would say the most important thing is that we come together and that everyone who cares about this issue unites.” Hirsch said she wonders if young people find the idea of tackling climate change to be overwhelming because there are no defined steps that teens can take that might have a direct impact.

“Climate change is not something that one person or one group can affect,” agreed Kenney, but “small, incremental changes can add up to something big.”

At Climate Advocates Voces Unidas, the organization has brainstormed initiatives targeted toward youth who want to join in the movement. These include the Climate Innovation Challenge, in which participants produce and submit short videos for a competition, as well as join a local discussion on the global issue.

“Young people need to understand that it’s not hopeless,” Smith said.

Sopoci-Belknap encourages youth to think politically to inspire change. Part of this involves shifting idealistic pledges to more sustainable, measurable goals.

In February, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order joining the U.S. Climate Alliance and pledged New Mexico to reach the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. In addition, legislators carrying the Energy Transition Act are pushing for 50 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030 and 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Additionally, the city of Santa Fe pledged last year to be completely sustainable in 25 years.

“I think if you don’t make a target or a goal, you have nothing to work towards,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Sopoci-Belknap wonders if it’s just another “promise being made that is actually unfulfillable, given our current structure. … We’re not being honest about the degree to which our economy is reliant on extraction, specifically. With one hand, [we are] signing a piece of legislation that is going to reduce our carbon footprint in the electricity sector, and with the other, basically having to roll over and let industry have their way, particularly natural gas and oil. How are we going to address these issues if we can’t stand up to industry in our state?”

But still, people are trying. Grassroots initiatives like the Sunrise Movement promote the Green New Deal, which aims to eliminate carbon emissions through a “fair and just transition for all communities and workers,” according to New Consensus. Community Solar and Local Choice Energy are other organizations that are pushing for realistic ways to incorporate and promote renewable energy, through making solar energy accessible to communities with diverse economic backgrounds.

Hirsch said the only way to bear the environmental burden that has fallen on our generation is to be accountable for this challenging inheritance, to find movements and organizations working toward climate solutions and to take action.

“If you want to get involved, I’d say look for the issue, look for the solution or look for the group that’s finding solutions,” she said.

Emma Lawrence will be a senior at Santa Fe Prep. You can contact her at elawrence@sfprep.org.

Aviva Nathan will be a freshman at Santa Fe Prep. You can contact her at avivafnathan@gmail.com.