Aug 26, 2021
Elizabeth Wade is a writer, photographer, and environmentalist with experience in teaching, performing scientific research, working in scientific laboratories, and working for environmental nonprofits. She has published two photography books that “celebrate the natural beauty of the world”: Naturally Beautiful Colorado and Naturally Beautiful Beaches and Coastlines, and she is preparing to publish a book about the many ways we are changing the planet.
Elizabeth has previously taught biology, anatomy and physiology, microbiology, nutrition, and environmental science and mentored a high school marine science club. She is a member of SubjectToClimate’s Teacher Taskforce and has volunteered for Citizen Schools and the Climate Reality Project.
When you went from being a biology teacher to being a nature photographer, what was it like to move from a more scientific approach to a more artistic approach to environmental issues?
I’ve been photographing nature since I took a photography class in high school, but I feel like it’s important to be able to celebrate the beauty and importance of nature. I’ve been trying to not only remind myself of the issues I’ve focused on --climate change and biodiversity loss and land use change and all this stuff that’s happening-- but to also remember that there’s still so much out there that we want to save and that we’re trying to fight for, and it’s beautiful, and it’s worthy. So that for me has been the focus of the artistic side.
When you were teaching, how did you teach about climate change?
My biology classes all had a segment on ecology. But I tried to bring in climate issues as many times as I could throughout, whether I was teaching about photosynthesis or cellular respiration or evolution. Anywhere that it made sense to talk about it, I liked to connect the dots. You know, try to help students not just think, “oh, okay, well I have to learn about this sub-cellular microscopic-level thing that doesn’t really matter.” It actually does matter, and it has direct applications.
Why is climate education important?
Basically, it’s going to touch everybody, if it hasn’t already. Where we live, where we get our food and water, if we have access to energy– everything in our lives is going to revolve around our ability to survive with the basics. Climate change is affecting all of the things that people need: a secure home, the ability to get food and water, the ability to not get overheated if it’s really hot, which, of course, is happening more frequently. The ability to avoid massive wildfires and devastating floods and things like that. It’s going to touch everybody that’s alive right now in a very personal way.
It’s critical that we do something soon, much more than what we’re doing, and knowledge is the first step. You have to be aware of what’s going on in order to be able to act on it and make a difference.
What are the biggest barriers to climate education?
In many places, there hasn’t been a major push for it, from an administrative or state or city level. It’s really been kind of a supplemental thing that teachers have added in, primarily trying to do it on their own. So, I think we should incorporate it more into the basic curriculum and tie it into as many subjects as possible: not just science, but also ethics, social studies, economics. There are a lot of tie-ins that make sense.
What kinds of emotional reactions have students had to learning about climate change?
Some students are very motivated, because they see opportunities for improvement. I had some students that were really excited to try to come up with some solutions, like “I’m going to go and talk to my parents’ Home Owners’ Association and try and get them to convert some of their turf to native plants” or things like that.
Some of my students, particularly my high school students, ask me, “how are you not depressed all the time?” Because it’s sad to learn that we’ve known about this problem for so long and that there’s been so much pushback and denial and “well, let’s wait and see. Let’s do a ten-year study” or “let’s get more data before we try to do anything.” That part of it is frustrating for students, and it’s completely understandable. It was frustrating for me when I learned about it.
So, for me, it was really important to recognize those feelings and to let students know that it’s okay to be frustrated and upset about it, but at the same time, there is hope. Things are progressing. It might not be as fast as we need, but we are at least moving in the right direction.
I would let them know that everybody can actually make a difference, that their actions actually do matter. There are so many of us on this planet, and not everybody has an equal weight when it comes to their effect. So, in the United States especially, we have the ability to make a big difference with what we do every single day. That really helped with some of those feelings of frustration or sadness.
What kinds of actions would you encourage your students to take?
I have them take a look at the things that they’re doing in their lives every day to see, “well, what are the biggest things that make a difference?” So, maybe consider things that you probably wouldn’t think about right away, like not turning on the air conditioning immediately when you start to feel warm. There are ways to open windows and use fans and the blinds and shades at your home, to try to prevent using the air conditioning system until it’s absolutely necessary. Heating and cooling homes is a huge source of carbon emissions. Another big thing is paying attention to how you get around.
Food, what you eat, is such a big part of your footprint on the planet as well. So, encouraging them to find out more about “well, what if I changed my diet a little bit? What if I switched out this for that, or put more plants on my plate?” that kind of thing. Things like that, that students could pursue on their own after learning about the impacts of different personal choices that they’re making.
Would you also encourage activism or advocacy?
Certainly. I feel like it’s very empowering for students to be able to participate with their peers and try to bring awareness. So, using social media, attending events, doing things like the School Strike for Climate.
I think it’s really great that students can participate and be active and try to bring awareness. Because it’s going to take everybody. Everybody is going to have to do something. Students are able to talk to their families and use social media and the internet to communicate their views and their passions, and I think that’s very important.
What advice do you have for educators interested in teaching about climate change?
Definitely get some basic knowledge, or find some good, approved resources if you don’t already have a little bit of information about it. Obviously, that’s the whole purpose of SubjectToClimate, to connect teachers with good resources.
But besides just doing a little self-education, think about the little things that you could try to tie in with your classes. So, if you’re teaching a math class, why not use a graph that shows the per capita carbon footprint of various countries in one of your examples that you’re going to have students work on? Or if you’re talking about economics, why not talk about how much it costs for people to be able to generate their own electricity and that using solar is now often cheaper than using fossil fuels?
Once teachers have a little bit of basic knowledge about that stuff, it does help open doors. So, the SubjectToClimate website is going to be awesome. It’s going to show teachers, “look, there’s all these things that are out there, that I can pull into my class, even if we’re not quote-unquote ‘talking about climate change.’”
Why did you join the Teacher Taskforce?
Well, I was very excited to see that there were opportunities where I could help an organization get something up and running that was so useful. It would have been great for me to have this when I was teaching. I’m potentially going to go back to teaching again in the future, as well. So it would be very nice to have something like this, where you can go in and say, “well, I’m looking for a resource about this or that, and I’d like it to be appropriate for these grade levels.” I think it’s going to be fantastic, and I saw this as a really great opportunity for me to contribute.
Favorite place in nature?
I’d have to say the coral reefs in Hawaii, for sure. Snorkeling and scuba diving in Hawaii, I got to hang out with some big sea turtles and puffer fish and parrotfish and octopuses and all kinds of cool stuff. It was amazing. That’s one of my favorite places in the whole world. And they’re disappearing fast, so I don’t take it for granted that I got to experience it.