Talking climate in the Canadian Rockies

Last year I took Simon’s Faculty of Arts course “Climate Change: Science and Society.” Throughout the course, he emphasized the end goal: not to create climate scientists, but for each student to be able to explain to a family member or friend about what climate change is, and why it might be relevant to his or her life. So, throughout the course, I found myself wondering, how exactly I would talk about climate change in such a scenario. This past summer, I worked in the Canadian Rockies as a naturalist, and I was forced to ask this question in a very real way. My approach: don a sequined blue dress to investigate climate change in alpine environments.

Twice a week I presented a campground theatre show about climate change. My audience was much more broad than I had imagined while in Simon’s course: it was composed of toddlers, middle schoolers, their parents and grandparents, and more. They came from nearby Canadian cities and towns, and from all over the world. Some were deeply engaged and knowledgeable about some, or many of the facets of climate change science and politics, most knew a little about climate change, and a few were passionate skeptics. My job was to be simultaneously entertaining and educational, while effectively driving home key messages about climate change in the Rockies. Thus the sequined blue dress: I became a secret agent and, together, with the audience, we investigated the impacts of climate change in the glaciers, on vegetation dynamics, and on habitat ranges in the alpine environments. Needless to say, there were some things that worked really well, and others that didn’t.

Things that worked:

1. Making jokes. Climate change is perceived as a serious, heavy, difficult topic. Which it can be – but that doesn’t mean that talking about it needs to be serious, heavy and difficult. Making appropriate, engaging jokes made people laugh and then think about whatever they were laughing about. It made the topic more accessible. They don’t have to be full jokes – just point out one of the many weird, quirky things that go on in the climate and alpine environments. For example, did you know that Pikas eat their food twice? Once from the haystacks that they build all summer, and then again after they poop it out! This is one of pikas many adaptations to the harsh alpine environment- but many of adaptations are so specific that changes in temperature, habitat size, and season length put a huge amount of stress on them.

2. Who cares? This is one of the most important questions to raise in pretty much any conversation, but it rings especially true in climate conversations. Telling people why they should care, however, doesn’t work very well in my experience. So I told everybody the simple, exact reasons why I care: how my mountaineering routes are changing because of receding glaciers, how the habitat of one of my favourite alpine animals (the pika) is shrinking to the point that they are extirpated in many areas in the US, how the beautiful turquoise alpine lakes will go clear if the glaciers that deposit sediments to them disappear (one of my hit jokes: pretty soon we are going to look like Ontario!). Eventually, the audience will find one thing (at least) on that list that they, too, care about.

3. Metaphors. To explain how a glacier worked, I used the example of a glacier as a savings account. And how rising temperatures and decreased snow pack affects the balance of the savings account. One of the most powerful climate-metaphors that Simon taught us is the extreme weather, steroids and baseball one.

4. Getting the audience involved. Asking older locals about what they have noticed about changing snow pack was always really effective (changes that were tangible and noticeable to the audience were the most profound). I also brought a number of kids on stage for a ‘reader’s theatre’,  so that they could tell a story about how White Mountain Avens (pictured here) are blooming one full week earlier than they did 30 years ago, and they are now out-competing Purple Saxifrage.

5. Getting visual. I had a huge advantage: my audience could see the glaciers, the blue lakes, and the alpine environment that I was talking about. Using repeat photos were also incredibly effective for talking about glacial recession and tree line creep. On certain slopes, the tree line has increased by between 50-100 vertical metres in the past century!

6. Using specific examples. Use examples that are relatable! For example, I talked about the specific recession of Peyto Glacier, which happens to be the most studied glacier in the Canadian Rockies. Many visitors stop at Peyto Lake – it is huge and blue and beautiful, and is shaped like a coyote. Now they know that the blue is coming from the glacial silt from Peyto Glacier, which is rapidly getting smaller.

7. Telling stories. Everybody loves a good story. I told a few; my favourite one was about my trip to Peyto Glacier to check out all of the glacier monitoring tools. We ran into a group of old mountaineers who pointed out where the glacier was the last time they were there- 30 years ago!

Overall, the audience responded really well to my shows: kids were entertained, and most came away saying that they learned something new. I had many conversations after my show with engaged visitors talking about climate policy where they come from, what evidence they have around the places that they live of a changing climate, and what they think needs to be done on local and global levels.These conversations were inspiring and educational for me. On the flip side, I had a few, more challenging conversations, with the odd critic or climate skeptic (these were often combined).

Stay tuned for a list of things that I really struggled with, and how I tried to deal with my skeptics. In the mean time, what tips or tricks to you have for talking about climate change?

6 thoughts on “Talking climate in the Canadian Rockies

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  6. I am an environmental educator who has taught climate change for 17 years! I have found that the best way to get young people motivated is to give them hope by giving them something concrete that they can do to prevent climate change or help adapt to it. Our next project at my school is to create a Desert Oasis Garden to demonstrate and teach our community how to grow food in a hotter, drier land. Our ideas for this garden were inspired by Gary Nabhan ” Growing Food in a Hotter Drier Land, Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Change”, and we hope to harvest water ( we live in a desert), grow drought adapted fruits and vegetables and learn from the technologies and tools that the Native Americans used to grow food where less than 5 inches of rain fall each year. Our current model of growing food will not suffice in a climate changed world.

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