Sea levels across the world are rising, soils are heating up, wildfires are increasing in size and intensity, and other environmental changes are occurring that require new knowledge and skills to handle. The challenges of global climate change are affecting and expanding the focus of careers in natural resources, from research and land management to wildlife conservation and environmental education.
As a response to student concern about the impact of earth changes and what they can do about them, the School of Natural Resources and the Environment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has added an option in Global Change Ecology and Management to its undergraduate major in natural resources. It’s the first such program at the UA.
It’s also the outgrowth of faculty dedication: After attending the 2015 global climate summit in Paris as a delegate and seeing the magnitude of the changes that are coming, natural resources professor Don Falk returned with the commitment “to do everything I could in this area as a researcher, a citizen and a teacher. I felt we had to do this, to help our students prepare to live in that world and be leaders in it. Students are literally the future of the planet.”
“Jobs for the 21st century are all going to deal with a low-carbon economy,” Falk said. “Natural resource management, political science, economics, urban planning, agriculture and international relations are growth areas because global change will touch all of these. That’s the world in front of us that will be the context for our students for the rest of their lives.” He adds, “The Earth’s ecosystems are facing unprecedented stresses in coming decades. We want to train the next generation of ecologists and land managers who are prepared to lead in addressing these challenges.”
“Part of the motivation for this new degree option is that students need degrees in the fields of tomorrow, not yesterday,” says Falk. In fact, the University of Arizona Strategic Plan, which was just released, identifies “Future Earth: Shaping a Resilient Natural and Built Environment” as one of the primary “Grand Challenges” that the University plans to focus on in coming years.
“We are thrilled to see the University stepping up to this role,” says Falk, “and we are prepared to play our part in educating a new generation of students to take leadership roles in a society shaped by global change.”
The Global Change Ecology and Management option consists of 28 units that students take as an area of emphasis within the natural resources major. Students choose at least one course from each of the following areas: skills and tools, Earth systems and global change, biological systems, human systems, and management.
All GCEM students gain a basic understanding of biological systems, climate, how global change is affecting ecosystems and how to manage them. Beyond that, they can fine-tune their choices to meet their needs from a pool of 70 electives and can enter the program as freshmen or as transfer students.
There’s enough flexibility for students to pursue interests they didn’t know were out there.
“I didn’t realize I could become an ecologist when I first started,” said undergraduate Marci Caballero-Reynolds. “I would like to be a land manager and also a research scientist focusing on post-fire restoration in arid grasslands—something I never imagined myself saying four years ago,” she said. “My entire vocabulary has changed since then. That’s also due to the professors we have who are interested in talking about career paths and interests.”
In the case of Geoffrey Hidalgo, who graduated in Spring 2018 after entering the program as a transfer student—and is currently working as a safety and occupational health specialist for the Agricultural Research Service—he zeroed in on the GCEM program immediately.
“I got curious about climate change. That was the only major that appealed to me,” Hidalgo said. “I thought I should study it, and I was technically interested in it. It’s a bit broader, encompassing courses in economics that pertain to agriculture, courses in ecology and conservation. You can really customize your own education."
Both Hidalgo and Caballero-Reynolds noted the importance of environmental policy and communicating clearly to the public.
“We don’t have enough resource scientists on the policy side. Science is social as well,” said Caballero-Reynolds. “We need to be able to talk about it.” She wasn’t interested in policy until a report that came out recently from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noting islands that may soon be gone due to rising sea levels. “Because of this major I’m getting more involved in environmental policy—climate change adaptation and learning how to do a climate assessment.”
“You have to make changes in your own life to have a positive impact, so others can see it’s a worthwhile endeavor, even though it can be very exhausting,” Hidalgo said.
“We surround ourselves with scientists who talk about climate change all the time, and it can feel like everything is going to get worse,” Caballero-Reynolds said. “But being in this major, you are surrounded by people who are also proposing solutions and want to make a difference. There is hope.”