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Professor Khaldoun Ahmad would like to be home in his native Iraq, helping the nation build a new solar energy system and transition away from fossil fuels, but he can’t.
In 2013, Ahmad explains, he became likely the first Iraqi to achieve a Ph.D. in climate change and biogeochemistry (the study of how chemical elements like carbon and nitrogen flow through physical environments and living systems), when he finished his studies at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
But when he returned to Baghdad, Ahmad, a Sunni Muslim, said the Shiite-led government wouldn’t recognize his degree. Ahmad was threatened in Iraq, he said, and he and his wife fled the country in 2014.
Ahmad returned to the United States and the University of Missouri–Kansas City to take up teaching as he looked for a permanent post. He saw opportunities across the country, but chose to come to St. Cloud Technical and Community College, a small community college with around 5,500 students, in 2018.
He was attracted to the diversity and affordability of the school. About 30 percent of students at St. Cloud Technical and Community College are people of color, according to the school, compared to about 21 percent of Minnesota residents overall. He liked the courses it was offering: environmental science, environmental issues, and natural conservation. He developed new ones, like a GIS (geographic information system) course. After two semesters, he saw a need and began to create an associate’s degree in environmental studies.
Students can finish and enter a growing job field in green energy and natural conservation or move on to a four-year university with half their credits earned at a manageable price–a priority for Ahmad, he said.
Ahmad’s large laboratory at St. Cloud Technical and Community College is covered with posters about geology and the ecosystem. Scales and sample tubs line the black-top tables. The massive lab stretches into Ahmad’s large office, where he apologizes for not having any fresh coffee in the pot. His silver hair matches his suit.
Ahmad has been vaccinated, he said, but he still wears a mask to be safe and respectful. The facial covering did little to mask his passion as he talked about the climate and teaching his students.
Now 43, Ahmad recalls spending his youth in an Iraq with beautiful weather. But that’s gone now. Lost to heat and drought mixed with heavy rains that have destabilized the soil and turned the Middle East into a harsher land that’s less friendly to human life. He sees a similar trajectory happening in North America.
The Iraqi professor spoke with Sahan Journal about his drive to educate young people about climate change and environmental justice, what he sees occurring in a rapidly changing environment, and the importance of diversity to create the right working conditions for success.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What attracted you to this role at a community college in central Minnesota?
I liked the courses they were offering: environmental science, environmental Issues, and natural resource conservation. Even if a person didn’t want to get a degree in environmental science, if they finished these three courses they at least would have enough knowledge of how to take care of the ecosystem. You get principles and you look at the issues and then you look at the management and how to fix the issues.
Also, it’s a diverse school. It’s a lot of diverse students, good administration.
I built this degree based on my experience and what I think students need to have sufficient knowledge. I built this degree so after two years, students can be trained to get a job. The degree is really flexible. They can do field work, we have internships. We have all these training courses so students can get experience before they graduate. The students have the option to go on to a four-year school and get a bachelor’s degree or they can get a job after two years.
This is my purpose: to help families, communities, and students to get cheaper education. I come from a country that gives free education. I didn’t pay for my education for a four-year university. I feel bad when I see students pay a bunch of money. I wish we could do free education, at least at community college, so even if students go on to a four-year university, they can save a lot of money.
What do you see happening in North America and Minnesota with climate change? How are we being impacted?
My master’s and Ph.D. is focused on climate change using organic geochemistry and biogeochemistry tools to understand the past. A lot of people don’t understand the meaning of climate change. A lot of people think climate change is about heat, global warming. To be honest, climate change isn’t only about heat. It’s fluctuations in the temperature records and precipitation rates.
The temperature record is spiking. It goes from 90–95 and goes back to 60, 50, or 40. So it’s going up and down, that’s the spike occurring that we have in evidence of climate change.
Look at precipitation. We have a lack of precipitation this summer. I have only been here three years, but I can tell in Kansas City, where I lived from 2007 to 2018, that climate change happened there. We had very heavy snow, but then the weather completely changed: in terms of precipitation, in terms of rainfall, snow, in terms of heat and humidity.
I have noticed this here also. If you look at last winter—it’s crazy when you look at the temperature and snow events. We had snow, I think, in October, and then the temperature went up, and dropped again.
Last fall, I showed the students a curve of temperature here in Minnesota. It’s going down below zero and then back to the 40s, 50s, 60s. This summer I noticed that two or three days were cold, even with the heatwave. Part of climate change is also seasonal shifting.
If we look in Minnesota, we have a very long winter. What I’m expecting is that our summers will get longer and the winters will shrink. Some people say, ‘Well, that’s good.’ It’s not good, because we will lose the transition. We won’t have spring.
Now, in Iraq there’s no spring. It’s jumping from winter to summer. We have four seasons, but the transitions are now very short term.
This is a very sensitive and critical situation that we need to take care of. We already struggle with agriculture in Minnesota because of winter. If we lose these few summer months for agriculture, we will have big economical issues in the future.
I was speaking with farmers last week about the heat and the drought , and they were dealing with a late frost in May, now only to see their plants wither in the warmth. Are these fluctuating temperatures making it hard for farmers to plan for a good harvest?
Correct. Let’s take tomatoes. The optimal growing weather for tomatoes is 75 degrees. The tomato doesn’t understand climate change. The tomato notices the adequate temperature to grow, and then suddenly the next day it drops to the 40s, and then back to the 80s and 90s. The tomato doesn’t understand the temperature spike that’s occurring. So the tomato will end up with no fruit.
That’s what most people don’t understand. This is a human trait. When we experience an issue and are very affected by it, that’s when we start taking action. When I teach, I take stories from the past about air pollution, lethal issues people had in the United States. How the government didn’t act right away and waited until people died.
This is the same thing. Climate change is happening. Why don’t we act right now to fix it? Look at the pandemic, we didn’t act in time so we had a lot of issues.
I was born in Iraq in 1978, and I was a child in the ‘80s, but I loved the weather there. It was beautiful, amazing. But then climate change showed up in the ‘90s, and now the entire Middle East is suffering from severe dry seasons. It’s coming from one territory to the other based on laws and how they’re taking care of the ecosystem, but it’s happening. I noticed that.
When I came here, what I started noticing year after year is we’re heading toward a dry environment, or a dry climate. This is so frustrating and I really don’t know what to say about what’s going to happen for people who need food. We’re heading to 10 billion people and a lack of land to grow food, soil erosion, sea-level issues, melting the ice sheet. All this is evidence of a really critical future for us, unless we act and act in the right way.
When I teach the ecosystem, I show the students unique climate zones and the type of vegetation that grows in those zones. What I show students is that it’s shifting. All the vegetation is pushing up north toward us
We might not see a lot of different vegetation types growing here 10-20 years from now. The heat might kill a lot of vegetation and trees. Imagine dying trees. That means an increase to CO2 in the atmosphere and damage to soil systems.
That’s scary. How do you try to communicate a sense of possibility and optimism to your students? I think it can be easy to look at what’s happening and say we’re doomed. How do you try to inspire optimism?
I always show in my teaching that there is hope. I’m always optimistic. Even if some scientist says it’s too late, I’m against that perspective. I believe any action you do can have good consequences as an individual or a group.
I tell students, Just do your job. Don’t worry about local government, federal government, politics. The results will come in the future. There’s hope, but we need to take action. Students don’t have much power in taking care of climate change, but they do have ways to recycle and grow food.
I am working to raise funds to start a greenhouse at St. Cloud Technical and Community College so students can learn to grow their own healthy food. Even how to grow vegetables on an apartment balcony. Students need to see results. I don’t want to just lecture students; I want them to be in the real world. That’s the difference. When you show them, they see hope. They see they can make changes. They learn how to recycle food scraps to create good fertilizer without going to the Home Depot. Coffee, tea, and eggs can be recycled to support your soil.
I try to engage students in their daily life about the topics I teach. I tell them stories and see how those stories can change their mind about climate change. I focus my teaching on a topic I’m passionate about: to create generations that can take care of the ecosystem without having a degree in environmental science.
I can’t have all people getting a degree in environmental science, that’s not logical. But the logical thing is having all people at least take some courses. With our courses people can understand how to take care of the ecosystem, and from there comes power.
You mentioned you enjoy the diversity of the college. It sounds like with these courses, you’re able to expose a lot of working-class students and students of color to what’s going on and how they can make a positive impact. Why is that important to you?
It’s interesting to have diverse students in the classroom, because you hear different perspectives. The concept of climate change is understood by students based on their background and the way they grew up. It’s a family action.
Here, at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, we have very diverse students. I used to divide students into groups and make diverse groups. Having different perspectives from different backgrounds can help to run experiments and develop hypotheses and discuss data together.
You can see justice in a diverse environment. What I like about this school is diversity, equity, and inclusion is applied here. And I like to add environmental justice with these terms.
The last lecture I give in environmental science is on environmental justice. A lot of students don’t understand what environmental justice means and how we can connect it to racism. I found a lot of students were interested in environmental justice and how it impacts families. I bring examples about environmental justice in the world, because those injustices are everywhere.
When I teach environmental justice and climate change, this is an international issue. It’s global and everybody is facing it. But there’s different actions happening to people based on their background and cultures.
If you were put in charge of climate policy for the nation, what would be your first major steps?
I would focus on two things. The first is education. How can we make environmental education accessible to everybody? It’s not just to talk about science, but to tell people what’s going on with evidence, with data, and stories.
As a scientist, we use data, we explain and build things with data. When I teach I always show my students the data to say ‘Hey, look’. You can convince a court, you can convince a government with data. Education is the most important thing. We need to make sure everyone is informed about environmental issues and the disaster we will face in the future.
The second point I would focus on is energy. Green energy like solar, wind, and geothermal. We need to start the action of changing energy. We don’t need to go right away to all solar and wind, but we need a gradual transition to renewables. This is because there are some issues with solar and wind. And we need to make sure we eliminate those issues until we can use those sources for 100 percent of our energy.
Each state needs to have renewable energy resources and then we build it until we change the percentage of using renewable energy every year. We need to be adding 5–10 percent renewable energy every year. We can reduce greenhouse gases for 10 years while building the energy system of the future. States should cooperate together and the federal government needs to help the whole nation build a new energy system.
I believe the United States has the resources to build the system without needing help from other countries. We can build solar panels here, any renewable system here. But we need to act. Action is very important right now. By 2050 we could have the best renewable energy system in the world, and we won’t need oil anymore.