September 26, 2023

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How one Alberta teacher helps kids manage their climate anxiety

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This week:

  • How one Alberta teacher helps kids manage their climate anxiety
  • Building the legal case for forcing countries to take greater climate action
  • Ottawa touts massive investment in fresh water protection

How one Alberta teacher helps kids manage their climate anxiety

(Travis Boser)

What On Earth17:14How an Alberta teacher is reaching kids with climate lessons aimed at easing anxiety

John Whidden, an educator with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, designed a program for grade five and six students to help them understand climate change, learn about the solutions and take action themselves.

When 10-year-old Kade Steiger grows up, he wants to have a family. But climate change worries him a little.

“What’s their daily lives going to be, what’s their children’s daily lives going to be like for generations to come?” he said during an interview with What On Earth host Laura Lynch. 

Kade (above photo, right) is a Grade 5 student at Dr. Ken Sauer School in Medicine Hat, Alta., and his worries aren’t unusual. Recent research shows that nearly 80 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 25 say climate change impacts their overall mental health. 

Statistics like that are what inspired John Whidden to design an education program for children Kade’s age to help them understand climate change, learn about the solutions and take action themselves.

An educator with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Whidden has been testing his program in Grade 5 and 6 classrooms in Medicine Hat schools over the past year. 

“I was hearing too much of this doom and gloom,” said Whidden, who used to teach in the public school system. “I know we’ve got an uphill battle, but I don’t feel completely hopeless, like some of these students did.”

When Whidden brings his program to a new class, he starts off by asking students to describe how worried they are about the issue, ranging from “not worried at all” to “losing sleep.”

Once he’s got a sense of how students feel about climate change, Whidden teaches them what science says about the problem. 

He talks with students about how to distinguish facts from opinions. “That’s always important for students to learn about,” he said. “So often we get a slant, we get some misinformation.” 

Next, Whidden talks with students about taking small actions and how that can inspire others. 

“Our little actions will eventually, as we grow older and become leaders, become big actions, and that can actually make a difference. I think that’s really important for them, to get hope through seeing that.”

Whidden also has students create climate action projects and present them to the class.

“They see each other doing these little [presentations] and I found they were quite hopeful and inspired. I certainly was,” he said. “I was really impressed.”

Student Abby Poncsak interviewed people at her school about climate change and what they’re doing personally to help solve it. Teachers, staff and administrators told her about everything from “the basics” — like recycling — to the solar panels on the roof of her school, which has earned the LEED sustainability standard. 

“It feels a little bit better to know that a whole bunch of people are helping, so you can join in,” said Abby (above photo, left). 

She was also inspired to learn during Whidden’s lessons that there are kids her age who are active in the climate movement. She said it’s vital for kids her age to learn about climate change. 

“That is very important to know because if we don’t do anything about it, if we go on the way it was for the past few years, then it’s going to be a worse world than what we’ve seen over the years,” she said. “We need people to know now so that they can do something about it.”

Whidden has tested the program in three classrooms over the past year and is considering how to make it more widely available. Ultimately, he’d like to see climate change embedded in the provincial curriculum. 

“We need to get it in the classrooms with all the teachers talking about it,” he said. 

Alberta’s current science curriculum has been in use since the 1990s, but the provincial Ministry of Education is working to bring in a new one, with more climate change-related content for grades 5 and 6

Kade Steiger said Whidden’s program helped him feel a little less worried about the future. 

“I learned how many people actually are trying to stop [climate change] and it’s quite inspiring,” he said. “It kind of gave me a sense of hope.”

— Rachel Sanders

Reader feedback

Monika Smith:

Uncovering lost rivers! Certainly happened in Calgary. In my neighbourhood, Glendale, a small lake (possibly seasonal, but definitely in aerials and a great image in the Glenbow archives) was filled in to form a ‘valley.’ But certainly other creeks were just in the way. I think Nose Hill creek has disappeared, too.

“For Calgary, I think it was a ’50s thing, when the population started to really grow. How sad to know we could have had a nice, small lake. But that would have priced us out of the neighbourhood. Still, one can dream of lost birds, amphibians and so on. Thanks for the article.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. As if seafood lovers needed it, there’s now another reason to enjoy clams and oysters at least the ones harvested from a river delta in Italy. We’ll head there to find out how the molluscs are capturing carbon. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it ondemand at CBC Listen.

***And watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here

The Big Picture: The legal case for enforcing climate action

A man looks right into the camera
(Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Sometimes, small players can have an outsized impact. Take the Pacific island country of Vanuatu — an archipelago of about 80 islands spanning 1,300 kilometres, population 300,000 — which several years ago began building a case that every country in the world had a duty to act on climate change.

Global warming is of significance to everyone, but it’s a visceral reality for Vanuatans, led by Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau (photo above). They are experiencing increasingly extreme weather, such as cyclones, and have had to relocate several villages because of rising sea levels. Last year, Vanuatu put forth a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly proposing that countries can be sued, through the International Court of Justice (ICJ), for not doing enough to slow climate change. Last week, the General Assembly adopted the resolution by consensus

Kalsakau called the resolution “the beginning of a new era in multilateral climate co-operation, one that is more fully focused on upholding the rule of international law and an era that places human rights and intergenerational equity at the forefront of climate decision-making.”

While the ICJ’s opinion would not be binding, it could turn the pledges individual countries made under the Paris climate accord into legal obligations. 

Vanuatu wasn’t the first to broach the idea of a legal framework for enforcing climate action. Fellow Pacific countries the Marshall Islands and Palau did so a few years ago, but the initiative fizzled because of opposition from much bigger players, including the United States (which, incidentally, provides security for both of those countries).

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Ottawa touts massive investment in fresh water protection

Two people swim, with a city skyline in the background.
(Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The federal government says it’s making Canada’s largest investment ever in protecting the country’s sources of fresh water, including the Great Lakes.

Commitments announced by the government during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit and in the recent budget bring the federal government’s total investment to $750 million, said Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

“[It brings] us very close to our commitment to invest $1 billion … in this mandate. So we’re not quite there yet,” he told CBC News.

The government announced during Biden’s visit in March that it will spend $420 million to clean up and restore the Great Lakes. That money is part of the $750 million total.

During the 2021 election campaign, the Liberals committed to spending more than $1 billion over 10 years to protect and restore freshwater bodies, including rivers, large lakes and the Great Lakes.

Last week’s budget earmarked $650 million over 10 years for the Fraser River, the Mackenzie River, Lake Winnipeg, the Lake of the Woods, Lake Simcoe, the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.

The money is intended to support monitoring, assessment and restoration work, to prevent the release of harmful chemicals and to reduce the frequency of algae blooms.

Canada’s freshwater sources face ongoing threats from plastic and toxic chemical pollution, algae blooms from excessive agricultural fertilizer runoff and invasive species. In the Prairies, they’re threatened by shrinking glaciers and drought. 

These threats affect plant and aquatic life and the communities that rely on these bodies of water for drinking water and recreation. 

Canada is home to 20 per cent of the planet’s supply of fresh water, but Guilbeault admits the country needs to catch up to U.S. investments in freshwater source protection and restoration. 

“[The Americans] have, in the past few years, made very significant investments early in the Great Lakes,” Guilbeault said.

Michelle Woodhouse, program manager for water at Environmental Defence, said it’s “very fair to say we have been lagging behind. It has been decades of chronic underfunding.”

According to calculations by environmental groups, the U.S. has invested $3.8 billion US in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative since 2010. By comparison, the Canadian government has allocated $44.84 million to the Great Lakes Protection Initiative. Even on a per capita basis, Canada is trailing.

In 1987, the Toronto waterfront was named as one of 42 areas of concern by the International Joint Commission, a binational commission established by Canada and the U.S. to regulate cross-border projects that affect water bodies along the border.

Since then, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority has been working to clean up Lake Ontario. Although it has made progress, it still has to close beaches occasionally and deal with algae blooms and concerns about wildlife habitat. The TRCA also maintains restrictions on fish consumption.

Namrata Shrestha, a senior manager at the TRCA, said investments by the federal government are welcome.

“We do have a lot of issues with our Great Lake system, especially Lake Ontario,” said Shrestha. “There are a lot of issues on water quality and its implications on not just the ecosystem per se … but also the cascade effect of it, of what that means for us as a community.”

The Toronto waterfront is among 12 of 14 Canadian areas of concern that Environment and Climate Change Canada is promising to clean up by 2030. The department says that over the next decade, it will focus on the following contaminated or degraded areas:

Three Canadian areas of concern have already been restored and delisted: Collingwood Harbour, Severn Sound and Wheatley Harbour (all in Ontario).

David Thurton

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty