Science·What on Earth?

If you're anxious about climate change, here are some ways to feel more empowered

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at ways to manage climate anxiety and remember an owl who became a social media sensation.

Also: The environmental cost of the U.S. military

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • If you're anxious about climate change, here are some ways to feel more empowered
  • The environmental impact of the U.S. military
  • RIP Barry the barred owl, a social media sensation

If you're anxious about climate change, here are some ways to feel more empowered

(Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm once again on climate change, with the authors calling it a "code red for humanity."

Over the summer months, many of us have been glued to TV and social media, watching images of B.C. forests burning, turning the sky — thick with smoke — an eerie orange-red. This has been accompanied by heat waves, floods, droughts and other fires around the world flashing across our screens.

It's enough to make even the most optimistic person experience feelings of climate grief or anxiety.

"When we feel we can do nothing, it's very easy to slide into despair," said Dr. Robin Cox, director of the Adaptation Learning Network at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. 

She says those feelings are completely natural in the face of increasing extreme weather events, but there are things you can do to feel less helpless in a changing world.

First, there's a measure of self-care. Cox says it's important to acknowledge dark feelings and manage them, by taking walks in nature, getting good sleep and eating well. And it's important to also take in moments of delight to help combat feelings of despair.

"We experience a range of emotions, and so finding those other emotions and noticing when you're feeling a sense of happiness or sense of joy can also kind of disrupt that chain of anxiety," Cox said.

In discussions about environmental action, a lot has been made about changing our lifestyle. We can recycle, consume less, take public transit instead of driving and buy green products, among other things — and there are numerous apps, such as iRecycle, FoodHero and JouleBug, that can help with that. 

Jessica Correa of Peterborough, Ont., wanted to put her master's degree in sustainability to good use, so she came up with an app called Random Acts of Green, which was partly funded by the federal and provincial governments. 

The app works on a point system. A user enters an act, such as reducing dairy or meat consumption. The app then calculates the savings of greenhouse gas emissions in that act, using figures provided by the consultancy ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability Canada, and gives the user a running score. 

As an added incentive, users can transform those points into discounts at mainly local green e-commerce stores — although Correa notes that most of the app's 7,000 current users aren't there just for rewards. 

"I think [the discount feature] was just a fun thing to kind of put on there," she said. "But of course … we don't want to encourage people just to consume for the sake of consuming."

Random Acts of Green is more than just an app, she says — it's a community where people can join together to take responsibility for their own actions. 

"Is the app going to save the world?" Correa said. "No, probably not. We need multiple methods."

While small actions can have benefits, both Cox and Correa say it's important to use our voices to call for greater action. That can mean protesting or calling out climate polluters, or even taking action with our wallets by not supporting corporations that are contributing to the problem.

Cox also notes that we're in the midst of a federal election.

"We can be demanding and question our political leaders about their stance and what they are going to do concretely about the changing climate and global warming in terms of mitigation and adaptation," she said. 

By doing so as part of a community, "there's a sense of not being so isolated in your grief and anxiety."

And while it may sound counter-intuitive, educating yourself about the effects of climate change and actions needed to mitigate it is just as important. The more knowledge we have, the more we can discover what we can do, Cox says.

"The reality is that we can do something about this."

Nicole Mortillaro

Reader feedback

Last week, Thaïs Grandisoli wrote about the controversy over the use of the word 'citizen' in citizen science. Here are some of your responses.

Jane E: "This article really infuriated me as a facilitator and user of citizen science. We are all citizens of Earth (or of the universe, if we want to include any extraterrestrials who happen to be visiting). Citizen science is a valuable research tool — especially in the era of big data. Talk of renaming it to foster inclusivity is disrespectful to those who are currently experiencing real discrimination. Please don't waste time with this when there are so many more important issues both socially and scientifically. For example, how do we foster scientific literacy among our 'citizens' when pseudoscience is becoming mainstream?"

Neil Butchard: "I read with some dismay the article on wanting to change the name of citizen scientist to something more politically correct. I've been doing citizen science for the past 25 years and would think that we have bigger issues to contend with. Given that we've lost 70 per cent of numerous bird species since the 1960s and that we seem to be determined to wipe out many insect species and other forms of biodiversity, I would hope that it is those issues we would focus on. I always took 'citizen scientist' to mean that I'm a citizen of the world who is interested in helping preserve our biodiversity. Remember, most bird species and our biodiversity don't recognize man-made borders."

Jackie Dalgety: "Why not just call it 'people science' — that solves the issues of both 'citizen' and 'community.' Simple, straightforward and obvious."

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The Big Picture: The climate impact of the U.S. military

In addition to the Canadian election, much of the news coverage this week has centred on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many pundits have decried the money the U.S. wasted — an estimated $2 trillion — in a two-decade war that took thousands of Afghan lives and ultimately returned the Taliban to power. Fewer observers have taken stock of the larger environmental impact of the U.S. military. Given its immense size, reach and reliance on a wide range of vehicles — from ships to planes to trucks — the military emits a lot of carbon. According to one study, if the U.S. military were a country, its fuel usage alone would make it the 47th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Although extreme weather events have overwhelmed some U.S. bases and the military itself has acknowledged that climate change is a "threat multiplier" to its operations, the army's reliance on fossil fuels — not to mention its many deployments — seems to be making things worse.

(Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

RIP Barry the barred owl, a social media sensation

(David Gray/CBC)

On Aug. 5, a New York celebrity died.

Barry the barred owl had taken up residence in Central Park last October, and in the 10 months that followed, a community had been built around the bird, who stood out for being so accepting of humans in her space.

"In times of uncertainty, her presence became kind of a source of continuity and comfort," Calgary naturalist Brian Keating told CBC Radio's The Homestretch on Monday.

Every evening before dusk, Barry would do some pre-flight preparation, preening her feathers and stretching her talons as a small crowd watched.

"Barry seemed to invite her humans, or so it seemed, to accompany her," said Keating. "On the first segment of her nightly hunts, she would fly slowly from perch to perch with occasional pauses in between, almost as if she was allowing people to catch up if they were falling behind."

Barry, whom Keating calls "a catalyst to turn people on to nature," became a social media darling.

"Normally, owls aren't really that into people, especially a bird like a barred owl, which is a bird of the old growth forest," said Keating. "She was very unusual, especially for a solitary bird, to be so generous with us, to let us observe her so closely every night."

Barry died earlier this month when she collided with a Central Park Conservancy maintenance vehicle.

Barred owls, said Keating, originally lived in more eastern regions. During the 20th century, they spread throughout the Pacific Northwest.

With their brown and white-striped plumage and soulful brown eyes — not yellow, like most owls — barred owls are beautiful, but easy to miss.

"Like all owls, they're cryptic in colouration," said Keating. "When they snooze on a tree limb, they virtually blend in, especially if they're behind some branches. So they're easy just to walk by, unless you hear them."

The easiest way to find a barred owl is to listen for and track their call, a distinctive nine-note melody that drifts through the forest, seeming to say, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?"

The barred owl's courtship call, though, is very different, said Keating.

He most recently saw a barred owl on Denman Island in B.C. At a friend's cabin, Keating heard a bizarre sound in the middle of the night from the garden. 

"A duet of cackles, of hoots, of gurgles," he said. "It's the kind of stuff that nightmares are made up of."

These owls lead surprisingly short lives; up to 70 per cent die in their first year, and mortality is still high after that. "They just die in obscurity," said Keating.

Not so with Barry, whose death was followed by an outpouring of sorrow. About 250 people gathered last Monday night in Central Park for a vigil, festooning the area with drawings of owls, flowers, Beanie Babies and messages of love and farewell.

"She really became a friend during a time, I think, when people couldn't easily see friends," said Keating. "I've always said that nature is a powerful healer, and I guess this is a beautiful example of that."

Sarah Moore

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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