Elected in November to represent New Mexico’s First Congressional District, Rep. Deb Haaland is among the first of two Native women to join the U.S. Congress. Focusing on her background, national magazines and television programs profiled her even before she swooped to victory on Election Day, outpacing her nearest opponent by more than 20 points.
After her first week in Congress, we’d agreed to meet at the Albuquerque BioPark’s Botanic Garden to talk about climate change. And on a cold, cloudy morning, we ducked inside the garden’s faux-cave, complete with giant toadstools and plaster footprints of prehistoric creatures. Neither warm, nor particularly quiet, the cave is a uniquely terrible place to conduct an interview. Instead of being ruffled, or appearing put-out, Haaland laughs.
It’s the kind of laugh that eliminates any speculation: what Haaland represents to the public has not eclipsed the person she is.
If you talk to people in the district, many were excited to cast their votes for a Native woman. A member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland explains that tribes are “always the most underrepresented at any table.” When asked how those proud to support a Native candidate can better support all tribal communities in New Mexico, she says Native people want what everyone wants—“a clean environment, a quality public education for their children, their elderly folks taken care of, health care for every citizen.”
“Those are all the same things I am fighting for, for every single New Mexican,” she says. “I think if we can just join forces, and we’re strong allies together, we can always make sure that those things are possible for every single person in our state.”
‘It’s always been hard, but we’ve done it’
Throughout her campaign, Haaland was a vocal proponent of action on climate change. And when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced last year that the newly Democratic-led House of Representatives would convene a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, Haaland requested that committee assignment.
“I realize that places like Florida, Louisiana, Houston, they will suffer because of the rising sea,” she says. “But climate change is going to affect the Southwest far more than so many other parts of the country.”
In the past few years, increasingly urgent reports and models have shown how human-caused climate change is affecting the Earth, and will continue to exacerbate everything from sea level rise and aridification, harming the environment, public health and the economy. But scientists have issued reports and warnings for decades. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s science advisory committee warned that by burning fossil fuels, humans were “unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment.” And in 1989, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of climate change. And yet, repeatedly over the years, when Democrats have held control over Congress, they have failed to act on climate change.
When asked what will be different this time, Haaland notes that a large number of the newly elected House Democrats campaigned specifically on climate change, and they are passionate about it. “The sheer number of us who are going to move the issue forward are present,” she says, careful to note that action on climate change doesn’t mean leaving behind workers in the fossil fuel industry. “I know there are folks who have left the fossil fuel industry to pursue other professions, and it works,” she says. “What separates us from the animals is our ability to reason: Human beings always have opportunities to change gears and do something different.”
And it’s clear that humans need to do things differently. An international report released in October revealed that if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t drastically reduced within the next decade, we will not stop warming that’s expected to have widespread and catastrophic impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems. In November, the Trump administration released the U.S. Global Change Program assessment showing that climate change is already having economic impacts on the U.S.—and left unaddressed, climate change will deliver a blow to American prosperity. In that peer-reviewed report, which was compiled by 13 federal agencies and more than 300 contributors, the authors noted that, “the assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the past is no longer valid.”
“We need to stay on top of this,” says Haaland. Many voices will continue advocating for fossil fuel extraction, especially in a state like New Mexico that has been dependent upon oil and gas revenues for decades. But the signs of that dependency are everywhere, even in the sky—the largest methane anomaly, or “hotspot,” in the northern hemisphere is above the Four Corners, she notes. “I think we need to put people’s lives first, I think we need to put our environment first,” she says. “Everything we have comes from our Earth, and if we don’t take care of it, we can expect to start losing things.”
Relocating from the dim cave to one of the BioPark domes housing native plants, Haaland explains why climate change and water are important issues to her. Pueblo people have grown food and nurtured crops in the high desert for centuries: “It’s always been hard, but we’ve done it.”
She relates a story about the Hopi Tribe, in Arizona’s high desert. “They would have people who looked out—24 hours a day, they would take shifts—and they would watch for when the water came down from the snowmelt,” she says. “Because every year, after the snow finally melted and the water would come to their land, every member of the pueblo would come out and with their implements, make sure that the water went down to their fields.”
It was a community effort, she says, their “one shot” at collecting water and ensuring it nourished their fields and crops. For pueblo people, water has always been treated as precious.
Her ancestors ensured she would have a future here today, she says, and she must have the same diligence, protecting land and water, and keeping traditions alive.
“It’s worth losing sleep over, it’s worth getting up in the middle of the night to nurture it so that life can be continued,” she says. “And I’m afraid that too many of us don’t feel that way. … I feel like here in the Southwest, with water being such a precious commodity, we all need to think about, ‘Where does it come from? and, How can we ensure that it continues to flow?’”