September 29, 2023
By: Lindsey Kirkland, Senior Climate Change Education Manager

An Educator’s Messy Journey into Climate Work

An Educator’s Messy Journey into Climate Work - Photo

Climate Generation was founded in 2006 after polar explorer Will Steger’s eyewitness account of climate change in the arctic. Will brought this story back to Minnesota after his experience observing the arctic ice shelf melting, and moved a community of educators, politicians, and climate change communicators to take action. Unlike this rather clean, uncluttered story of Will, my story as an observer of and advocate for climate change hasn’t happened in one place nor am I even able to make sense of it most days. My story paints a picture of a woman who has come to climate awareness and action through many isolated and seemingly unconnected experiences.

Lindsey as an undergraduate student in Washington.

Around the time that Will was sharing his story for the first time, I was in my first year of undergrad at college. I was completely unaware of Will and his story. In fact, I didn’t learn about climate change until my second or third year in college. I don’t want to discredit my university, so I will admit that I probably heard about it in some science classes. However, I didn’t really learn about the human-dimensions, like the fact that people caused it, that people’s health is impacted by it, and that we have a responsibility to fix it, until my junior year. Can you imagine a student today going that long—until they were 22—without learning about climate change? 

Most youth now, even if they don’t learn about climate change in schools, learn about it online through social media and through their friends. As an educator, youth learning about climate change out in the wild so to speak is scary because of all the misinformation and fear mongering that I know is happening out there.

I grew up bouncing between two predominantly politically conservative communities. My school-year home was in Texas within an education system that taught intelligent design and never talked about climate change. My summer home was in a rural farming community in Iowa which regularly observed the effects of changing weather patterns, but didn’t discuss the depths of climate change within their community. Over twenty-five years later, this experience is strikingly similar to students in some rural and conservative states today suffering from political decisions to remove climate change from schools.

Lindsey harvesting crops with her grandfather and cousins in rural Iowa.

On the farm was where my love of the earth was forged. Daily chores caring for pigs and cows and harvesting corn was where I began to understand peoples’ reliance on animals and the land for food. Hunting, fishing and trapping with my uncles and older cousins taught me the importance of stewardship of wild animals and the ecosystems they rely on. Because of our reliance and interdependence with the outdoors, my family was deeply steeped in conversation about weather. We would check the rain gauge every morning, talk with neighbors about the precipitation predictions for the next week, and worry about the forecast for droughts for the season. Unbeknownst to me, this culture was forming the foundation through which I would become a climate change advocate and educator.

When I graduated in 2009 from college, Climate Generation was three years old, An Inconvenient Truth had recently come out, a coalition of federal partners had recently developed the Climate Literacy Principles, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fourth Assessment Report warning that serious effects of warming had become evident has just been released. At this time, nearly 50% of U.S. adults believed in climate change and were concerned about its potential impacts. I would say I was one of those, but I definitely wasn’t in conversation with anyone about climate change at the time.

After my summers on the farm, I had finished school and moved to Washington to complete a degree in Environmental and Conservation Studies at the University of Washington. Through my degree, I was trained as a field ecologist and after graduating spent 10 years working on agricultural farms studying the efficiency of bees and other pollinators on crops. My days were spent watching honeybees and native bees busily buzz from flower to flower doing the hard work of making our food. Bees are uniquely attuned and sensitive to weather patterns: they will become less active in cloudy conditions, hide under leaves during a wind burst, and stay in their underground homes during rain for days on end. Watching an insect, who is responsible for producing U.S. crops valued at $50 billion annually, respond to weather patterns this intimately always made me wonder and worry about the larger patterns of climate and how even the smallest of shifts would impact our pollinating insects, and therefore our food supply.

Lindsey telling her climate story at the Talk Climate Institute held her first week at Climate Generation.

In the roughly 15 years since, the climate change community has made some huge strides in changing the way they communicate about climate change. These strides have increased public acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, up to about 70% across the U.S. now, as well as ushered in some amazing solutions-centered work. U.S. Americans have become more concerned about climate change, and denialism has stayed consistently low. Next Generation Science Standards, which heavily center climate change, were published and adopted or accepted in 42 states! And, in very recent years, the connection between science, education and social justice have become regular features in the education system, and are becoming more wide-spread knowledge in the education system.

In 2020, just three months before the COVID 19 pandemic hit, I was hired as Climate Generation’s Climate Change Education Manager. I had recently gotten my Masters in Education from Rutgers University, and I wasn’t ready to jump into the school setting. At the time, I was completely unaware of the connection between my life as a farm kid, a student who came up through a politically conservative educational system, and a field ecologist to this new role. I applied because I had wanted to apply my knowledge and skills as an educator to something that seemed important. 

It’s only through my job at Climate Generation, and the deep relationships I’ve forged with our partners and my colleagues, that I’ve come to understand how our identities throughout our lives can prepare us to understand and overcome the challenges of living through a crisis, such as the climate crises. I am now happy to say that I am a contributing member of the climate change movement, and I’m truly grateful that I work alongside so many people working towards solutions together.

Lindsey Kirkland

Lindsey Kirkland supports on-going climate change education programs for K-12 educators and public audiences. As the Education Manager, she also develops a vision for and provides strategic coordination for programs focusing primarily on professional development for teachers and informal educators. Lindsey is adjunct faculty at Hamline University and supported the development of their Climate Literacy Certificate, a contributing author of NSTA’s Connect Science Learning journal, and an active member of Climate Literacy and the Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) and the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) Guidelines for Excellence writing team. Lindsey has served as an environmental educator with the AmeriCorps program the NJ Watershed Ambassadors, worked as a naturalist and education program coordinator for the NJ Audubon Society, and assisted in program development for museums, universities, and new nonprofit organizations in the United States and Australia. Lindsey holds a BS in Environment, Conservation and Fisheries Sciences from the University of Washington in Seattle, WA and a MEd in Science Education from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. In her spare time, Lindsey enjoys spending time with her husband and her son.