Courtesy of Joshua Ostroff
One of my earliest childhood memories is marching against the apocalypse with my parents. It was Vancouver in the mid-’80s. I was around 10 years old—the age my son is now—and very anxious about the end of the world. (Around the same time, my parents had, perhaps foolishly, let me and my older sister watch The Day After, a TV movie set in the wake of a nuclear holocaust.) With Cold War tensions between the US and USSR pushing the Doomsday Clock toward three minutes to midnight, annual peace marches brought hundreds of thousands downtown demanding nuclear disarmament.
Back then, it was easy for people of all ages to grasp the possibility of World War III—a pair of powerful men could end humanity instantly with one misunderstanding and two turned keys. Today’s climate crisis, on the other hand, is a slow-motion apocalypse that we’ve known about for decades—the term “global warming” was coined way back in 1975, the year I was born—yet kids are somehow far more capable than grown-ups of comprehending the coming threat.
That’s why students around the world have spent the past year marching against it in massive climate strikes. And it’s why covering these youth protests as a journalist—who also happens to be a father—inspired me to quit my beloved job to join an environmental non-profit organization. My top priority is protecting my child, which includes his present and future. This past summer, I left behind the only career I’ve ever had—one I decided on at age 15—to work for World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada) so that I could be part of the climate fight rather than just report on it.
I’ve always been concerned about the environment. Growing up among giant evergreens on the West Coast will do that to a kid (as will being raised by hippies). My dad was even part of an environmental theatre troupe called the Ozone Players that did sketches about the then-gaping hole in the ozone layer. (Yes, I was utterly embarrassed by it at the time. Now, I respect both the politics and the pun.)
I first learned about global warming around 25 years ago, back when the United Nations started organizing annual conferences to discuss doing something about it. But, like those world leaders and most everyone else, I grew accustomed to the climate crisis percolating in the background.
The danger remained a distant abstraction, even after I started writing about it as a journalist at HuffPost, until a family trip home in the summer of 2017, when climate-related “extreme fire weather” set the province ablaze. (It was British Columbia’s worst wildfire season in recorded history—until the following summer.) A year later, I found myself on a polar expedition work trip to Nunavut, a life-changing experience where I got up close to threatened ice-dependent species and spoke to Inuit about their way of life being at risk of melting away after thousands of years.
In January, I joined CBC Kids News. While researching young newsmakers for a tween audience, I discovered Greta Thunberg, who had begun her then-lonely climate strike outside the Swedish parliament in August, and Sophia Mathur, an 11-year-old from Sudbury who began her own solo climate strike—the first outside of Europe—a couple of months later.
Thunberg’s fledgling Fridays for Future movement kept growing over the course of the winter, leading to the first global climate strike in March. I embedded with the Toronto group, spending the day with adorable and whip-smart elementary-school-aged strikers as they drew posters and practised chants and dance moves before hitting the streets. They shared their fears for the future with me and their optimism that it could still be saved—if only grown-ups would listen.
Though they had no idea at the time that 1.5 million other students were doing the same thing around the globe, these young kids stood in front of Queen’s Park, yelling at the top of their lungs, “The youth have risen! The youth have risen! The youth have risen!”
It was powerful to witness while assembling the rough cut and adding footage of Thunberg’s steely-eyed “I Want You to Panic” speech and a montage of YouTube clips of kids from all over the world coming together en masse to demand climate action. Emotions kept overwhelming me—an involuntary and embarrassing-at-work physical reaction. I’m a relatively reserved person who almost never cries, but this potent mix of parental and climate anxiety was too much. It’s happening even now as I type this, as I remember that day.
I continued to cover climate change as a reporter and producer, hearing from experts about what was coming and what we still had time to do about it. One scientist broke down future scenarios for our young audience. She explained that, within their lifetime, unless the world changes its current carbon-emissions trajectory, Canada will experience flooding on the coasts, droughts in the prairies, melted ice and permafrost in the Arctic, deadly heatwaves in the cities and the Endor-like rainforests of my BC homeland burning away into grasslands. Oh, and the beach town where I’m from will be under water. I might see some of this. My son could see it all.
During the second global climate strike in May, I got student strikers across the country to film their protests and make their demands. They sent me 148 videos. Again, emotions unwillingly welled, especially when I watched a speech by Jessica, a 13-year-old from Halifax.
“I’m sure a lot of you, when you were younger, thought about your future,” she said. “In elementary school, you always thought, ‘What am I going to be when I grow up? How many kids am I going to have? What am I going to name them?’”
“But today, that’s changed,” she said into the microphone, her voice catching. “Because every time one of those issues comes up, my brain goes to ‘What if that never happens?’ And I’m still 13. Everyone younger than me is going to have even more fear than I do now. I don’t want a future to be questionable. I don’t want it to be ‘maybe if.’”
I know that “maybe if” fear because I felt it, too, as a kid, worried that nukes aimed at Seattle might miss and hit my house in Ocean Park, BC, near the US border. Deniers have tried claiming that informing kids about the climate crisis amounts to child abuse. But actual child abuse would be doing nothing to prevent it. So, I did something.
When an opportunity serendipitously presented itself, I went for a job interview for senior editorial specialist at WWF-Canada, the local branch of the world’s biggest conservation organization. With scientist-filled offices from St. John’s to Victoria and Toronto to Iqaluit, WWF-Canada focuses on protecting nature and fighting climate change.
That same morning, a UN biodiversity report revealed that a million species are at risk of extinction.
I took the job. Soon, I was mobilizing WWF-Canada staff and supporters for the historic September 27 climate strike—the one that brought 7.6 million people into the streets of more than 2,000 cities around the world—while handling communications around UN climate reports on land use, melting ice and rising seas.
I now spend my days helping conservation scientists, who work on “nature-based solutions” that use carbon sinks like forests, wetlands and coastal restoration to reduce emissions and their impact while protecting at-risk species. I still have a “beat,” primarily Arctic and climate, and my job is still factual storytelling, which includes producing a newsletter; translating science into articles, press releases and presentations; writing and editing briefing notes and op-eds; and overseeing video and social media. But our wins here are different because our mission-driven goals go beyond informing people to influencing policy and industry.
Our biggest success this summer, for instance, was helping to secure interim federal protection for Nunavut’s Tuvaijuittuq, a Germany-sized section of what we’ve coined as “the Last Ice Area” above Canada and Greenland, where scientists project that sea ice will persist the longest. Safe from future development after a decade of science, advocacy and negotiation support for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, it can now provide a future climate refuge for High Arctic species and the communities who rely on them.
When my son marched against the apocalypse at the September strike, he hand-painted his sign with a Thunberg slogan from her UN speech the week before: “How dare you!” Her target—and his? The grown-ups who won’t take action.
Look, I’m as anxious as ever—maybe more so now that I know more, especially about the magnitude of wildlife loss. And that Doomsday Clock, which also takes climate change into account, is actually now at two minutes to midnight. But I took action. So, though I can’t wave my hands and make my son’s climate fears go away, he knows that his dad leaves the house every day to go and work on it.
This story was originally published in December 2019.