Category Archives: Self-Promotion

(Don’t) Panic: A hitchhiker’s guide to climate anxiety

In late March, I gave a presentation on fear and hope and helplessness in climate communications at a local Climate Change summit. There was supposed to be a video at some point, but I’ve (temporarily) given up on ever seeing it; but here’s what I said, with a picture of me saying it, in a handmade dress no less.

I’d love to hear what you think . It seems to be a bit of a Rorschach test: people hear what they think they’re going to hear, so far. Something like, “I loved your speech! It was about [climate communications preconception,] and that’s awesome!” And I say, “Thank you!” And I think, “Interesting, that’s not what I was trying to say.”

(As presented)

So climate experts are sniping at each other on Twitter again.

What about, you ask? The remaining carbon budget? Sea level rise? Hurricane projections? Oh no. None of that. There is only one subject I’ve seen continually spark fights between distinguished climate scientists on twitter, and it’s this:

Should we do everything we can to scare the bejeezus out of people to get them to act on climate change? Or, if we want people to act on climate change, must we do everything in our power to avoid scaring the bejeezus out of people?

I used to be on Team Fear, partly because fear was key for me. I grew up in a house stacked with books about Armageddon, full of lurid details about how the world was sure to end in fire in the 1980s, proof being Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark. Which meant I grew up thinking I wasn’t going to high school.

It’s not so different from Greta Thunberg and the school strikes. That’s it, folks. At the same age I was when I had my daughter, you will see human civilization begin to irretrievably crumble. We messed up. Sorry. Also, here’s a large student debt. And are you saving for your retirement? The seniors’ colony on Mars is not going to be cheap, so you wanna get started.

As it turned out, Gorbachev wasn’t the antichrist. He was just a guy who tried really hard to bring democracy to Russia. Climate models, however, consistently underpredict impacts, so the wildfires and hurricanes and sea level rise are all ahead of schedule.

You would not believe the number of people in the last year who, when I tell them I work in climate change, say, “tell me the truth. Are we screwed? Should I just get drunk and wait for the end?” The titanic comes up a lot.

Fear got me into climate change, just like fear got me into church. So if other people weren’t engaged, they must not be scared enough. So I scared them.

We haven’t had this much carbon in the atmosphere for millions of years! I said. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying from climate impacts every year! YOU HAVE CHILDREN! If you’re not doing something, YOU’RE KILLING THEM!

No, I did. And it never, ever worked.

Why weren’t people responding with more enthusiasm to my terrifying mountain of facts?

Because fear doesn’t work, the research said. It paralyzes people. They hide from the issue instead of engaging with it.

Huh. Really? That’s weird. It didn’t do that for me.

Or, well.

Am I the only one who hasn’t yet packed an emergency kit for the next major blackout or extreme weather event?

I’m a type 1 diabetic. Ask me how many cookies I’ve eaten this week.

(The cookies here have been delicious, by the way, as always–so I guess you know the number’s not zero.)

Friends, I’ve had 100% cookie-based meals.

The complications of type 1 diabetes are objectively terrifying, and this means nothing in the face of a homemade chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven. Which I take the time to make myself. Partly to manage the stress of working in climate change. I should see amputations sliding off the cookie sheet, instead, I see endorphins.

OK. We’ll scrap fear. We’ll focus on hard work, optimism and hope. Hope is big. Hope is printed in really big letters all over this Summit, for instance.

I tried really hard. It went something like this:

Don’t give up! If we pull together and have some lucky technological breakthroughs, things will only get worse for another 50-100 years, and then, assuming we don’t skip merrily past any invisible tipping points, we can stabilize at a level that supports human civilization! Take transit!”

That didn’t work either!

When I tried to scare people, they called me an alarmist; when I tried to inspire people with hope, they called me an alarmist. Then Greta comes along and sparks an entire mass climate movement with five letters:


I give up. Or, no, I don’t give up. That’s incompatible with hope-messaging. Wait, what are we doing again?

The facts of climate change are objectively terrifying. What kind of hand-waving could we do to make that disappear?

Susanne Moser is a climate communications expert and the author of a textbook on the subject (that I read for fun). Here she says there are seven parts to an effective climate communication:

“a minimum amount of information, a realistic assessment of the threat, a sense of personal control, a clear goal, an understanding of strategies, a sense of support, and frequent feedback.”

What do they get?

That it’s possible we are ending the ability of the planet to support human civilization. Doomed cities, doomed countries, doomed cultures, deaths numbering in the millions—or more, the loss of entire branches of the tree of life within our lifetimes, wars and mass migrations caused by human desperation. –information and threat

That if we don’t decarbonize by 2050, our goose is cooked. Literally. —goals

That strategies like renewable energy and electric cars exist, but we haven’t been able to deploy them at sufficient scale.

That carbon levels are still going up. —feedback

And that it’s all in the hands of people they don’t know, don’t trust, and have next to no influence over.

It isn’t just that people aren’t given a sense of control in these media messages, but that they’re actively told that they’re powerless.

No wonder people so often tell me they’ve already given up.

Or I hear: “Andrea, I’ve changed my lightbulbs. I can’t afford to fly. I tried the community garden and everything died. The gardening class was $800. I already vote. I’m not an expert—I don’t know what to say—there was a community meeting at 3 pm and that’s when I pick my kids up from school. I’m terrified. I need to do more but what?”

We in this room are in a position of immense privilege. Working in climate change is, yes, stressful. I have a whole new appreciation for bourbon in my forties. But it’s also a gift: when climate news is scary, we can use it to fuel our work. It isn’t just that fear got many of us here, but that being here gives us a tool to manage that fear.

Most people don’t have that.

Still, isn’t it odd, that citizens of first-world democracies feel so powerless? How have our imaginations failed so badly?

What if stop worrying about whether we’re scaring people not enough or too much? Can we talk instead about this pervasive powerlessness?

Because they’re not. Social and economic transformations have always depended on political will, yes, but it isn’t a thunderstorm, arriving out of a clear sky, leaving a new world in its wake. Citizens acting collectively produce political will.

Every project we work on does two things: it reduces GHG emissions or makes our communities more resilient, and that’s critical, that’s why we’re here. But each also tells a story about whose work this is. Does the community have a role to play, or are they observers only?

Here’s what excites me about the Bay Area Climate Change Council: it tells a story about our community’s agency. Community feedback, community priorities, and representatives from community organizations created the work plans. Action is local: we will see and touch it. It widens the road to action for more people, which boosts the climate conversation, too. Someone who sees and knows they can help create the political will needed to make change won’t—hopefully—need to ask if they should give up before they begin.

A bunch of long words about something we already intuitively understand: social capital and building resilience to climate change impacts

(It’s a Season of Presentations apparently, Dear Readers; and here’s one I gave on Thursday evening at the first public meeting for a Community Response to Extreme Weather (CREW) group and project in one of our lower-income communities. It ties in nicely with the bit on Building Communities I wrote here recently, so I thought I’d post it. Hope you enjoy, and would love to hear your thoughts!

There’s a bunch of links to studies I referenced at the bottom, and I’ve posted the slides I used too if you’re interested)

Today I’m going to talk to you about how building social capital improves health and increases resilience to extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Which begs the question: what the heck is social capital?

As it turns out, nobody knows. There is no one definition.

But it does sound very impressive. Building social capital to improve health and increase resilience to extreme weather events caused by climate change! Lots of words with lots of syllables, exactly the kind of phrase that impresses donors and the public. It’s reassuringly technical. It even uses the word “capital,” which in a capitalist society, tends to be equated with “good stuff.”

But, like a lot of phrases that have lots of syllables, impress donors and the public, sound reassuringly technical, and make us think about money, it’s incredibly abstract. You probably don’t get a picture in your head of a person doing an actual thing.

Sometimes it helps to start with a thing’s opposite, so let’s try that. What is the opposite of social capital? Social isolation, right? Social poverty. That’s a phrase that probably brings a concrete picture to mind of a person doing an actual thing—but in their home, by themselves.

And we know it’s dangerous. It’s deadly even in the absence of compounding factors. Social isolation has the same mortality impacts as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. That’s incredible. A socially isolated person is 29% more likely to die from any cause. Loneliness is even contagious: a single lonely person can destabilize an entire social network, causing isolation to spread like a virus, according to one longtitudinal study. Loneliness causes people to be pricklier, to withdraw from potential connections faster, which increases their isolation and according to some studies leads to them being shunned in social settings. It doubles your chance of dying from heart disease. That person doing a thing, in their house by themselves, is dying from it— and the people around them are at higher risk of dying too.

Add in extraordinary circumstances like an extreme heat event, an ice storm, a power outage, and that person in their house by themselves is even more likely to die.

When I was brainstorming ideas for this presentation, I found three key rules for avoiding serious health or mortality impacts from an extreme weather event:

Don’t be old
Don’t be sick
Don’t be alone


What a soul-crushing list.

They meant it tongue-in-cheek, but that is not going to help if you are old and sick, and you come across this list while you’re trying to prepare for an emergency—in your house–alone.

Public Health Units like the one I work in are highly, singularly motivated to help as many people as possible reach old age, where eventually, we’re all going to get sick. And then it gets pretty hard to leave your home and make new friends. And what about other isolating factors? Unpredictable work schedules, not speaking English, culture shock, disabilities—all are going to be barriers to getting out of the house and meeting people.

And if you’re already lonely, and if that loneliness is compounded by things such as poverty or illness, when an emergency comes to your neighbourhood, you may desperately need help and have no one to ask for it.

Which is why people who are old and socially isolated are the most likely to die in the wake of an emergency.

So how do we solve this?

As we said—build social capital to increase resilience in the face of emergencies such as extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

Great! What does that mean? What the heck is social capital?

OK, so it’s hard to define—but we know it when we see it.

It means friendship, yes? It means rebuilding trust in our communities, so we know we can ask for, give and receive help when we need to. It means connections and reciprocity. It means care. It means: who we know, who knows us, and who we can rely on.

And now it starts to sound like something you can picture someone doing—public meetings, the PTA, neighbourhood associations, the one kid who offers to shovel everyone’s driveway, tea with a neighbour, going to the playground.

If the research says that loneliness is destabilizing, painful, and deadly, what does it say about social connections? Here’s an abstract from a recent meta-analysis:

Social connection is a pillar of lifestyle medicine. Humans are wired to connect, and this connection affects our health. From psychological theories to recent research, there is significant evidence that social support and feeling connected can help people maintain a healthy body mass index, control blood sugars, improve cancer survival, decrease cardiovascular mortality, decrease depressive symptoms, mitigate posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and improve overall mental health.

What about in the context of extreme weather events and other climate impacts?

Post-Katrina studies in New Orleans found that, when you compare neighbourhoods with similar income levels and demographics, those with more social capital—more civic engagement, more relationships, more connections—recovered faster and stronger than those without. Research conducted in communities recovering from Cyclone Alia in Bangladesh also concluded that social capital is crucial. Similar results were found in post-earthquake recovery in Kobe, Japan and Gujarat, India. Communities and neighbourhoods recover faster when the people in them have strong social ties.

As with a lot of climate solutions, rebuilding social capital has a funny way of making life better at the same time. Regardless of when or if an extreme weather event hits close to home, if we can rebuild those networks, we’ll be healthier, happier, stronger, and live longer—and unlike eating kale or jogging or flossing, it promises to be a lot of fun.



Click to access RackinWeil2015PAASocialCapitalandRepopulation.pdf

Click to access Is-Social-Capital-good-for-your-health.pdf

Open Blog

Look! Pretty! (Taken at the Butterfly Conservatory)

Welcome to anyone who’s wandering over from either Support for Special Needs or Heritage Toronto. Please poke around and ask any questions you may have. (Look at me–I’m conducting my blog like a public meeting open house. Hi! Do you have any questions about what you’re reading? Is there anything I can help you with? If you’d like to give me your contact information I can follow up with you when I have an answer. Thanks for coming!)

All About Me. Plus Grace Paley. And Wind. And Theory.

Over-reaching? Nonsense!

I’m almost three weeks in to the new job, and it’s finally feeling real and settled enough to tell you a bit about it.

I now coordinate environmental studies and approvals for wind energy projects.

And oh, the hate mail that will eventually bring down on my head. But at the moment I am very zen about that prospect, because I am now doing work that I believe in, that will allow me to provide for my daughter and bring about the kind of world I want to live in, and it’s energizing. At first I thought my new employer might not appreciate me outing myself but then I thought, after any given public consultation meeting anyone I meet can easily google me and I’m all over the first few pages so … there did not seem to be much point to secrecy. My nod to propriety is a current refusal to say precisely which company I’m working for.

Ask me how zen I’m feeling after that first public meeting.

I’m building wind parks! Hurrah!


I’m also on the cover of the current issue of This magazine. Eek. I’ll let you take three guesses as to which of those teasers* is mine. Although actually the piece is more about all of those annoying reasons why it is so hard for good information to compete against bad information. It could have been evolution, it could have been climate change, it could have been vaccines, but in this case it happened to be wind energy. Go figure.

A piece I wrote for Rabble on wind energy (there is definitely a theme developing here) has been selected for their latest best-of anthology as well.

And just to prove that I can go radically against theme, there is a new blogging gig in the works where I will be contributing on Toronto’s natural heritage. I think this is really exciting since–as you can tell from even the most casual perusal through my archives–I do love nature and natural heritage and there are not all that many opportunities to write on those subjects for audiences larger than this one. When that starts to come together I’ll post more details. But in the meantime–well, I guess that’s quite a bit actually, isn’t it?

Is that enough self-promotion for one day? Or one week? Or even a month, maybe? Let’s go with that.

I’ve been telling friends, readers, and passing acquaintances for years that when I was five years old I wanted to be a writer and a missionary. And while when I was five I meant the travel-to-the-bush and convert-the-heathens type, I think I’m actually doing it.



A long, long time ago, I promised you a series of posts about greed, biospheric value systems, Nature Deficit Disorder, pro-environmental behaviours, positive psychology, and a basic cultural overhaul. We’re most of the way there! I think I owe you one more post, and then I’ll have a semi-cohesive Theory of Something. That is still coming. Next week. Probably.

But in the meantime, just because it has been a long time since I have burdened your innocent eyes with nature poetry, take this! By Grace Paley:


I am afraid of nature
because of nature     I am mortal

my children and my grandchildren
are also mortal

I lived in the city for forty years
in this way I escaped fear


From Begin Again: Collected Poems. Jam-packed with gems.

Of course you know me by now: we only think we are separate from nature and her side-effects in cities. Our cities are nature, as much as termite mounds are. But it seems to be a popular passtime, deluding ourselves en masse about our origins and destiny by surrounding ourselves with human artifacts and calling that “urban” and “civilization” and “artificial” and “unnatural.” It never works, but we keep trying.


*I think.

Skating Lessons

maple leaf in the snow
Of course, if I was going to be hacked–inconveniencing me and my twenty-odd readers–it would be during the Copenhagen summit. Fortunately I know all of you were well-supplied with climate news from other quarters and that the only real consequence was that you were spared my nail-biting highs and lows as I oscillated between hope that maybe something of note would come out of it after all and despair that I was witnessing the beginning of the end of the world. Not to mention the shame of watching our nation’s leader drag Canada’s reputation through black crude; now I can worry about revealing my Canadianness when next I travel abroad.

Maybe I’ll just stay home.

I’ll claim it’s climate-friendly.

Anyway. The thing is, in Toronto in January, it’s easy to forget we even have a non-built environment. We scurry from heated home to heated car or heated subway to heated mall or heated office, spending agonizing minutes at a time exposed to the wind and twisting our ankles in the slush at the side of the roads. And yes, I know that Toronto is relatively blessed climate-wise for Canada and we could live in St. John or Saskatoon and know what a real Canadian winter is like. Stuff it. All I am saying is that Torontonians generally spend the time periods bracketed by Christmas and the spring thaw pretending that there is no such thing as a non-built environment.

This is not surprising. The Canadian winter can, and until the 20th century regularly did, kill people. It was not all that unusual for poorer Canadians to run out of wood for their stoves sometime in February (and in echoes of today’s political debates, albeit with less potential for disaster, be scolded by the rich and the political conservatives for being poor in the first place and in the second daring to spend a single cent of their meagre resources on anything not strictly related to survival, thus deserving to die by freezing).

I digress. The point is: it’s Toronto, it’s winter, it’s cold, the closest most of us come to the natural environment is the greenery at the local mall, and half the time it’s fake.

Not that being outside with all that non-human nature stuff loses its positive effects. I’m sure it would still make me a kinder, more altruistic, happier, healthier person with higher levels of vitamin D. It’s just uncomfortable. Really, in Toronto in the wintertime, you have two options: 1) Coccoon. Never be farther than 20 feet from a heating vent of some kind. Drink lots of tea or coffee. Plot the shortest possible point between any two external doors. The non-built environment is out to get you; avoid it all costs. 2) Learn to enjoy the cold.

My daughter, sweet innocent poppet that she is, does not yet have to learn to enjoy the cold (though she does shiver along with me while we walk to her school in the morning, pitiably lamenting, “I wish it was spring!”). She wants to build snowmen and make snow angels and examine the prints different kinds of animals make in the snow; she wants to get a toboggan and ride it downhill. She wants to skate.

She doesn’t know how to skate. I don’t know how to skate. I’ve lived in Canada for 34 years; I’ve been dragged to oodles of yearly skating field trips during my public school career. Each time I would wobble fearfully around the ice–did I mention I was terrified of ice when I was in grade school? That I would often walk around a frozen puddle rather than risk slipping on it?–find some sort of a hobbledy gait, decide I liked it ok, put the skates away and only bring them out during the next year’s field trip. It was warmer inside and I had books to read. But Frances wants to learn how to skate, which means I need to learn how to skate, which means dear god help me she’d better like it or she’ll have hell to pay.

(Metaphorically speaking. No pressure.)

This means that tomorrow the boyfriend is teaching me to skate. Or, at least, he’s going to try. He was born in Korea and he plays hockey every week. I was born in Toronto and I still shuffle my way across a frozen puddle. I love Canada. Anyway: he is going to teach me how to skate, and if you think I sound nervous about this you’d be right, and his threat to bring a camera and provide the world or at least a few close friends with photographic evidence (or blackmail material, I’m not sure which) is only partially contributing.

Still. I am determined to learn how to enjoy, or at least tolerate, the Canadian winter, for as long as we still have one, rather than spend January and February pining for April and trout lilies (though there will be that too). Then I might have more to tell you about between now and our annual flooded-creek warnings. That I may be providing Frances with an athletic skill that will be all but useless in the February of Toronto 2030 when we no longer have ice in winter, I refuse to contemplate.

Sorry again about Copenhagen, world.

(By the way: I have short pieces in Corporate Knights and Spacing right now about solar energy in California and the 20th anniversary of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don respectively, and an essay recently published in a parenting anthology. You’ve missed my publication updates, haven’t you? No?)


dsc_00040001-21This is what happens when a print assignment bleeds into a vacation that spills into a busy social week and then morphs (I am running out of change-verbs) into another print assignment. Which I am just beginning, but regardless I am determined to write something here before August. This not included.

In bullet form:

1. I am alive.
2. I realize that the why-I’m-not-posting post is a cop-out, and I will deliver something better soon.
3. My article on Wind Turbine Syndrome just came out in the Summer 2009 issue of This magazine, and slightly off-topic, I also have an essay out now in the Summer 2009 issue of Brain, Child about the joys of single motherhood. The first will probably be online sometime in July, and I’ll link to it when it is; the second likely won’t be, so if you want to read it you’ll have to hunt it down.
4. I saw a coyote loping along Newtonbrook Creek last week. This made me very happy.
5. The microfrogs have dispersed, either because they’ve been eaten or because they’ve moved on to better, wetter digs.

In other news, unless your attention has been consumed by the twin calamities of Michael Jackson’s death and the impact of the city worker’s strike on our public trash bins, you have probably noticed that you are now being charged five cents for each plastic shopping bag you bring home. Might I point out, in the interests of accuracy, that a five-cent charge is not a ban on plastic bags, and if your modern lifestyle is dependent on plastic bags you are fully entitled to bring home as many as you like.

I’ve noticed a fair bit of hyperbole on what is, after all, a nearly insignificant charge on an item that most of us found clogging our kitchen cupboards until we sickened of them and tossed them. No one is forcing you to forego the plastic bags, so if you need some bin liners and can’t bring yourself to spring for the Glad version, quit your belly-aching and pony up the nickel, eh?

I’ve been bringing my own reusable bags around with me ever since I went on exchange to Germany at 17, which is precisely half my lifetime ago, and so speaking from experience: you will get used to it. A day will come when you hardly ever forget to bring them with you or leave them in the car, and when that day arrives I predict you will find that the ten cents charged for the two bags you actually have a use for is no big deal.

Wind Energy and YOU

I may be a bit quieter for the next couple of weeks while I work on a new article about wind power, this one about the issues around siting wind turbines or wind farms in and near Toronto. We have one (at the Ex) and if Toronto Hydro gets the results they want from the anemometer off the Scarborough Bluffs, we could have a bunch more. This ruffles all of the usual feathers.

But where exactly are we supposed to build them? Everyone likes renewable energy–and every opponent of any given wind project I’ve interviewed has said that at least once, so it must be true–but somewhere else, apparently. The technical siting constraints are considerable: you need to have enough wind; you need to have enough space; you don’t want to build it in a migratory zone for birds or bats, and you don’t want to chop down significant habitats to construct them. So you might think empty country is better–but then how do you connect them to the grid? Miles and miles of transmission cable aren’t exactly environmentally friendly, plus you lose more electricity in the lines the farther it has to travel. From an economic perspective and from certain environmental perspectives, producing electricity where it will be consumed makes sense. Just like growing food where it’s going to be eaten.

I have no answers yet, and twenty-five days to come up with some and put them in a well-written and persuasive article. Wish me luck.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue of mixing wind turbines and cities. Would you want one in your backyard? Close enough to see it in the distance from your kitchen window? Are they modern works of art or eyesores? If you live in Toronto, what do you think about the WindShare turbine at the Ex and Toronto Hydro’s hoped-for plans off the Scarborough Bluffs? Where should they go, and why?


I have it from reliable sources that a short article I wrote on the East Don Parkland Partners has hit the newsstands in the latest issue of Spacing magazine; I haven’t yet seen in my local Chapters, but it is out there.

Spacing is about public space in Toronto, but they’re branching out to other Canadian cities now, especially online. They recently got a few nominations for National Magazine Awards (including magazine of the year) so it’s exciting to be included, even if I haven’t yet seen it myself!

Please have patience

ETA: I think I’ve fixed the pictures. Let me know if you find any that don’t show up, ok?

After five or six years as a dedicated Movable Type girl, I’ve given up; I find their latest release nearly impossible to use. So I’m slowly moving everything over to WordPress. While I do some links may be broken and some pictures may not show up. I am working on it and hope to have everything back to normal soon.

In the meantime, I’m playing with different ‘themes.’ Be sure to tell me if you think one look or another is better. (They’ll all be green!) At some point I’m hoping to put up my own header, but in the meantime I’d like something that does not cause the eye to bleed when gazed upon.