September 29, 2021
By: Betsy Wilkening, COP26 Delegate

Connecting Across the Aisle

Connecting Across the Aisle - Photo

“My son is failing his Spanish course, since he won’t hand in his homework!” 

“Everytime I ask about her friends, my daughter gets upset and locks herself in her room.” 

“I’ve been asking my son to help get our equipment together for the upcoming hunt, and he won’t budge from his video games.” 

This was all part of a conversation I had with fellow parents sharing the trials of parenting teenagers.

It is typical of conversations heard in the aisle of a local grocery store, soccer field, or school parking lot. What was truly unique about this particular conversation was that it took place out on the frozen Chukchi Sea of Utqiaġvik, Alaska. My fellow parents were Stoyka, a Canadian scientist of Bulgarian descent, and Roy, our guide and a member of the Inupiat Nation.

In the Spring of 2009 I had the opportunity to participate in an international science project, OASIS, as a PolarTREC teacher in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. PolarTREC is a program that pairs teachers and researchers together in scientific field work in either the Arctic or Antarctic. The OASIS project included 30+ researchers from institutions across the globe. They combined many research projects that centered on the way pollutants make their way across the Ocean, Atmosphere, Sea Ice and Snowpack (OASIS). The Polar Regions and Arctic communities are vulnerable to these contaminants because of the long-range transport of atmospheric pollutants.

As a teacher, I brought the experience back to my 7th grade students through blogs, a live event, and eventually lessons. One such lesson led my students through a quest in understanding why there is mercury in our seafood, how an OASIS scientist was measuring mercury concentrations in various mediums in Alaska, and how actions we take affect those living in the Arctic. One of my student’s parents commented about how this lesson accomplished a behavior in her daughter that she was never able to instill. The student went around the house turning off lights because she recognized that energy received from a coal-fired power plant produces atmospheric mercury and eventually ends up in our food chain.

Prior to my expedition, the coldest temperatures I had experienced with any frequency, being born and raised in Arizona, was the walk-in refrigerator at Costco. In Alaska, I quickly learned that two temperature scales, Fahrenheit and Celsius, meet at -40°. Eventually I became comfortable with my outside snow sampling work on the tundra field near the research center.

I can still remember the excitement and trepidation I felt on the day I was invited to travel from the research center to the sea ice with a smaller group of researchers visiting their sampling site. Roy explained that I couldn’t venture out of his sight, since it was his job to scare away polar bears with his rifle. Stoyka patiently explained that I could ease the death grip I had on her waist from the seat behind her on the snow machine.

I learned that the sea ice is much colder than the snowpack on the tundra and when you get cold, you have to move to get warm. So while the scientists were debugging instruments and downloading data, I ran (as much as you can in giant boots and many, many layers of clothes) back and forth on the nilas (new sea ice). My path paralleled the polar bear tracks left behind in the beautiful frost flower crystal structures that formed on the nilas. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the frost flowers we had been analyzing in the laboratory up close. They are formed when the brine (salty water) and sea ice wick the moisture out of the air. Eventually I warmed up, Stoyka finished her work, and we had time to chat about our teenagers at home with Roy while another scientist completed his work.

I was heartened to find that despite all of our differences, our unique backgrounds, geographies, and perspectives we had so much in common to share.

I have revisited this experience recently with a myriad of emotions. Sadness and anger bubble to the top. Parenting was so much easier in 2009 than it is today! My children were able to attend school, hang out with friends, and participate in extracurricular activities. Now, in 2021, after a year of remote and hybrid COVID-19 restrictions, students are back in the classroom with a more contagious strain of the virus taking hold.

Common sense would tell you to take all the necessary precautions to protect our youngest and most vulnerable members of society, who are not eligible for the vaccine. Unfortunately in Arizona and many other states children are now a political pawn, with laws against mask mandates and vaccination requirements. I’m angered by this. No child is expendable! We are failing our children by not being able to provide them with safe opportunities to learn, play, and socialize.

How did we get to this point? If I spoke to a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle individually about their young ones, wouldn’t they tell me that they want the best for their child? I believe that the disconnect that comes into play lies within understanding what is “best.” Misinformation and disinformation is a more insidious virus that is skewing the understanding of the best way to combat COVID-19 in order to keep our children safe.

Misinformation and distrust in science has also been an easy way to disregard and undermine another global challenge we face: climate change. If we can’t protect our children from a virus, how can we not only protect them, but also provide a future where they can thrive in the prevalence of climate change?

Anger can fuel us in moving forward, but it also drains our energy. Battling misinformation and distrust in science is a big step toward creating that world we want for our children and their children to thrive in. It takes courage to leave your comfort zone, listen, learn and reach across the aisle to those who don’t think the same as you. In truly listening to others we can develop empathy, find common ground, and help others to make the connections necessary to move forward in facing our global challenges.

In 2009 I summoned all the courage I had, leaving my family and warm home to travel to the Arctic for a month to learn more about our world and what I could do to help protect it. I listened, learned and experienced cultures different from my own.

Now is the time for all of us to summon the courage and to find ways to push past our comfort zone to act on climate change in bold ways.

I plan to reach across that metaphorical aisle, engage in conversations that can be difficult, to tell the truth, find that common ground, and connect others with ways of combating climate change. One thing I learned on the sea ice that day is that connecting with others just requires the courage and commitment to take that first step, and to make it plain that we are all fighting for the same thing — what is “best” for our children.

Betsy Wilkening

Betsy Wilkening is the Education Outreach Coordinator at Arizona Project WET – University of Arizona, President of Polar Educators International, and a member of Climate Generation’s Window into COP26 Delegation. Betsy’s hispanic roots run deep in the Sonoran Desert, and as members of her community are disproportionately affected by extreme heat, persistent drought and extreme storm events, she is passionate about empowering all to take action to build a more resilient community. Learn more about Betsy and subscribe to follow her experience at COP26.