Joshua Tree instructs students about climate change


When Joshua Tree National Park Ranger Caryn Davidson announced, "We cannot do much to change the course of climate change," 30 students moved to the corner of the Black Rock Visitor’s Center under a large paper sign with the words "strongly disagree" written in black magic marker.

"Mankind has the intelligence to destroy the world with the atomic bomb and we also have the technology to save it," volunteered one outspoken student. 

"We should make more metros instead of cars," commented another student named Elizabeth.

Ranger Davidson’s statement was not pessimism aimed at discouraging young minds, but part of an educational exercise at Joshua Tree National Park’s Student Climate Change Summit. The activity is called "barometer" and it’s used as a tool to gauge student sentiment and encourage discussion. After a statement is read, students move to one corner of the room with a sign that says “strongly agree” or to the opposite corner that says “strongly disagree.” Students who don’t feel strongly end up in the middle. They then discuss the question with other students who have similar or different views. When Davidson said, “I spend a lot of time thinking about climate change,” the students distributed themselves evenly between the two corners of the room.

Joshua Tree National Park, the Wildlands Conservancy, and the National Parks Conservation Association convened the student climate change summit with the goal of teaching students about climate change, informing them about how climate change will affect park resources, and encouraging students to engage their schools and communities in an ongoing dialog about climate change. But it also took dedicated teachers and administrators to make the summit happen.

The high schoolers were from communities in the California Desert and attended the summit for different reasons.

“I came because I’m an environmentalist, want to work in the national park and it’ll look good on my resume,” said an enthusiastic student named Joshua. “I do think about climate change a lot,” stated another student named Krista. “I’m not going to sit here and do nothing about it.”

Later in the morning, Luke Sabala, a national park physical scientist, described the complexities of climate change science and policy. Sabala projected the image of a polar bear stranded on a diminutive ice flow on the screen.

“You know every time I see that polar bear I want to go out and buy a Prius, but did you know that everything you did this morning contributed to climate change?” asked Sabala. There were no holds barred in this class. Sabala pointed out that anyone who had even flushed the toilet that morning had used energy and therefore contributed greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In a discussion about the declining range of the park’s namesake Joshua trees due to hotter, drier conditions attributed to climate change a student asked, “Won’t the Joshua trees adapt and eventually grow longer roots?"

“If climate change does dictate that we have hotter, drier conditions, these guys are going to suffer,” answered Sabala. 

After lunch, the students hiked to a remote, jumbled pile of rocks where they measured, recorded, and

photographed lichens as part of a long term study to see if they are being affected by air quality and climate change. Lichens were a subject that teachers and students from the previous year’s summit said had fascinated them. Joshua Tree National Park responded by devising a program that could teach students both about biology, climate change, and scientific inquiry.

For the next hour, students recorded the different species of lichens on rock panels to the Southeast of the visitor’s center. They identified different species of lichen, traced them carefully on transparencies with dry erase markers, and then photographed them. Students who participate in the summit next year will follow the same protocol to see if there have been changes in the distribution of the lichens.

At the end of the day, the students trudged back across a hot sandy wash and into the dark, air conditioned visitor’s center where Lorna Lange, a national park education specialist, led an evaluation of the day’s events. Many students commented that they hadn’t observed lichens prior to this trip.

“The lichens are like little animals,” observed one student.

“Getting the lichens wet really helped my group record them," commented another. 

Just shy of 3:00 p.m., the sun was lower on the horizon and the heat had begun to dissipate. Teachers were glancing at their watches and vans were staged in the parking lot of the Black Rock Visitor Center ready to go. But there was one last question from a student in the back row. 

“How do you get a campsite in the park?”

Seth Shteir is senior program coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association in Joshua Tree, California.

Top photo: Shanti Almanza, a senior at Desert Hot Springs High School, learns about climate change and desert ecology. 

Second photo: One of the many lichen species students learned about at Joshua Tree National Park. 

Photos courtesy of Caryn Davidson.