Joshua Ostroff remembers being terrified of the end of world when he was a kid. That meant something completely different in the 1980s than it does now, but he still sees that fear in kids today, including his own. That’s why he dropped everything to be a real part in the fight against climate change–for his son, and all future generations.
Jordan: In case you haven’t heard, the kids are pretty mad at the grownups.
News Clip: Many Canadian news are no longer leaving it up to politicians alone to solve the issue of climate change. Many are taking up the fight themselves. Everything is going downhill and to make it go back and uphill, we need to do something about it. Our future’s being ruined because of like everybody else not caring about the climate.
Jordan: They want us to do something not to talk about it, not to debate it. They just want action right now in that clear-eyed way that only kids can insist upon. Just as past generations of children were afraid that nuclear war or the hole in the ozone layer would end the world before they got to enjoy it. These kids feel like they’re watching their future slip away. So what are we doing? And I don’t mean are we recycling? Are we eating beyond meat? Are we doing whatever do our part thing is making the news this week? What are adults doing to help kids who are scared that climate change is stealing their future? Well, at least a few of them are headed right to the front lines, and today’s guest is one of them. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story in another life. Joshua Ostroff was a reporter and a journalist. He’s not anymore. Hi Joshua.
Joshua: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: No problem. Why don’t you start just by telling us what the end of the world looked like to you when you were a child.
Joshua: Yeah. So I grew up in a border town on the West coast, South of Vancouver, and uh, I was pretty sure that we were going to die in a nuclear Holocaust.
Joshua: Uh, I was born in ’75. Uh, so I kind of became aware of the world in the early eighties. I remember doing a report for school where I literally cut out maps of the US and the USSR and hand drew and nuclear bombs flying back and forth, and then wrote about what happened with Hiroshima, which was a one mega ton bomb. And talking about how Reagan at the time was building a hundred mega ton bombs. And so this was like a real fixation of mine, um, partly because there was nuclear submarines in the water near our house. And because we were so close to Seattle, which has a big Naval base, and so there was also a lot of anti nuclear protests that were happening in Vancouver at the time. Big, like 100,000, more than a hundred thousand people, crowds, uh, that my parents would take me on. So these are kind of like, among my earliest memories are like marching against the apocalypse.
Jordan: Very common, not anxiety inducing at all for a child.
Joshua: Yeah. But it just was how things were in the 80s and it’s, it’s always made me wonder, like when people freak out about terrorism now, you know, as bad as terrorism is, we’re worried about a car or a knife or a gun. But we were literally in the 80s worried about the end of humanity.
Jordan: And that would be the end of humanity and kind of like an instant.
Joshua: In a flash.
Jordan: And how does that compare to how, uh, your child and other kids have anxiety about the end of the world today?
Joshua: Yeah. So what we have right now is a slow motion apocalypse, and it’s making kids anxious. A lot of it is because they think about the future a lot. Um, more than– adults can kind of get in their own heads. And we’re very concerned about the present. Uh, but kids are constantly wondering what their features are going to be like. And they’re really freaked out that the grownups, who are supposed to be taken care of things and taking care of them, aren’t doing anything about this future that they keep hearing about this climate crisis that is coming and that all the stories we keep getting about it just get worse and worse, and it doesn’t feel like the people who are supposed to be in charge of the world are doing really anything kind of concrete about it.
Jordan: Is that more or less scary, do you think, than kids in the 80s and I was one too worried about imminent nuclear catastrophe?
Joshua: Um, it’s hard to say whether it’s more or less scary. They’re worried about their futures. I was a kid, I was worried about my present. You know, like I thought that this could literally happen anytime. It was very much in the pop culture of the time there was songs and movies and TV shows. The day after was this TV movie that really kind of traumatized me as a child. And a lot of the climate change stuff is still a little esoteric. Even for kids. They know something bad is coming. The Amazon was on fire. They just had 30% more fires this year than last year. Uh, Siberia, the Arctic was on fire last summer. You know, the floods that are happening, these extreme weather events, so maybe they’re able to like see those a little bit more, whereas adults are dismissive and like, Oh, these things always happen. But they don’t actually always happen. And they certainly don’t always happen with this sort of frequency, but I think adults are better at putting that, putting these nightmares aside.
Jordan: Well. Tell me what you did when you realized the kind of anxiety that kids today are having about climate change.
Joshua: Uh, well, I quit my job and I took a new job.
Jordan: How did that come to be?
Joshua: So I had gone to none of it, uh, the previous fall. It wasn’t a climate change story, but it kind of gave me a real grasp on, on the changes that are happening because the Arctic is warming, uh, at a faster rate than the rest of the world. Uh, there’s a real concern about what’s going to happen when the ice melts. Uh, what’s going to happen to the people, what’s gonna happen to the species? And being in the Arctic is, you know, you can see a picture of the Northern lights and it’s not the same as looking up and seeing. And so it’s the same thing. You know, we’re Canada, we define ourselves by being the great white North, but we’re not, were all huddled along the border. And so actually seeing this place that is going to be changed irrevocably. Kind of started up a little bit of anxiety in me. And then, uh, in that next January, I started working for CBC kids news. And, uh, this was a really amazing job. I have a child, uh, he was nine at the time. And so this was kind of in his age group. I thought I was going to be explaining grown up news to kids, but what happened was kids became the news while I was there.
Jordan: How so?
Joshua: Uh, well, the first thing that I was asked to do was, uh, find some kids to do some reporting on. Uh, to tell stories about. And so I discovered Greta Thunburg, who I was not at that point familiar with. She was not the global superstar that she, uh, is today. Uh, so this was January. So I discovered her and I discovered Sophia Mathur, who was the first climate striker outside of Europe. Uh, an 11 year old, she’s 12 now, up in Sudbury. And. Because of that, I decided to cover the first global climate strike. I thought it’d be a good kid story. So I went with a camera person. We kind of embedded with these kids for the day. Nobody ended up really covering that story. Uh, the Christchurch shooting happened the same day, so went to cover that and people didn’t really expect the numbers that would end up turning out. So that march, it was about 1.6 million kids in cities and countries around the world that came out. And just being around these kids, these elementary school kids who were so honest and open about their fears and so disappointed in grownups for not doing anything about it. And one thing that really struck me there was this girl, Zoe, who said, uh, cause kids are really big in a fairness, right? Fairness is super important. And they, they were talking about how it’s not fair that kids can’t vote and that grownups need to be taking care of them and that they’re not. And the grownups are deciding their future and they’re not doing it good enough. And so that was kind of a, you know, a really impactful thing when I was there with them. Even more so in the edit suite when I was putting the rough cut together and kind of going over all the footage and, you know, going through some of Greta’s speeches and I started getting, um, emotional in a way that I wasn’t really used to, um, in public, um, a little bit right now, to be honest. Um, so it’s a weird anxiety that I have. And so I just kept going on and covering stuff. And then CBC was doing a big series called In Our Backyard. And so I was put on the editorial board for that. So we kept having all these experts come in, these scientists and insurance actuaries and all these other people coming in and explaining, uh, what the situation was to give us story ideas. And so like, you know, things, but knowing things. It’s not the same thing as knowing things, right? We have so much information available to us in this age that we have all this like low level information about everything. When you start getting high level information, it can be really kind of disturbing when you find out that actually the climate models are wrong often, but not be, but because they’re too conservative, because scientists are generally conservative, they don’t want to overshoot, so they’d rather say low. So when you end up getting like the permafrost in the North melting 70 years ahead of schedule, that’s where the problem is. Everything’s actually worse than we think it is. And I found a website that looked at sea level rise based on the temperature increase. I’m from a beach town, so you can go on the map and find any place in the world town sink. So you move it along from zero to half a degree to one degree. So when we get to two degrees, Crescent beach, uh, is gone. And so that was really kind of disquieting. Then we did another story where we interviewed a scientist, uh, at University of Guelph called Merritt Turetsky. Um, who kind of took us through all the different ways that Canada is going to change within the lifetime of kids today. My kid, you’re a kid. If we don’t do anything. You know, there’s high, low, medium emission scenarios, but if we stay on the track that we’re on, which is not a good track, everyone’s missing their targets. We’re on track currently for 3.2 when we need to be 1.5. Yeah. It’s a big difference. Um, and she kind of took us through all the different ways, the deadly heat waves, uh, the death tolls that are going to be happening in cities like Toronto and Montreal. The flooding that’s going to be happening on the coast. The droughts and desertification in the Southern prairies, all the melting and the like complete destruction of way of life that has been going on since time immemorial in the North and the forest in BC eventually, um, will burn down into grasslands because that’s what happens. You have a thing called extreme fire, whether it’s what’s happening in Australia, um, climate change doesn’t start fires. But it creates conditions that allow them, right. Okay. It’s higher temperatures and it creates drier conditions. In BC. You have the problem with the pine beetle, which is also climate related, which is basically just putting Tinder in the forest. So when a lightning strike hits it, or you know, a camper with a cigarette, um, you get these fires, which is why in BC, we had the big fires in 2017 and 2018.
Jordan: Was there. I mean, that’s a long West of kind of–
Jordan: No, it’s good, that was a long list of, of kind of a gradual transformation. Do you remember a moment in particular when a switch flipped for you in terms of making a decision to go from reporting to doing and what was it that triggered that?
Joshua: So in May, there was a second global climate strike. There’d been a national one in Canada at the beginning of the month. And then there was a global one at the end of the month. I reached out to kids across the country cause I didn’t want to have my coverage be Toronto centric. And I asked them to go to the national strike and film each other and asked what their demands were. And uh, they sent in 148 videos. They’re really powerful. They’re just honest. You know. Kids are just honest. And so got me thinking like, I don’t know how much journalism is changing this.
Jordan: Right. It’s a question we ask ourselves a lot.
Joshua: What impact did the CBC In Our Backyard series actually have? It came in, it went, um, and it’s good that it’s covered. At a certain point it all becomes background noise. And when it becomes back, I mean, it’s– Trump succeeds by flooding the news so that no piece of one piece of news is more important than any other piece of news. And then it becomes background noise and you can ignore it. And so the same thing was starting to happen with climate change. Uh, and then a job opportunity kind of came up. Uh, I ran into somebody at the top of the CN tower when my son and I were climbing, uh, for the fundraiser that WWF does every year. Um, my son and I had been doing it for years since he was six, and I ran into someone, uh, at the top uh, who was working there, and we talked a little bit about what I’d been doing and I explained that I’d been covering climate, uh, and I had just been to the Arctic and she’s like, well, we need somebody on those files. Uh, why don’t you put in a resume? And then like a few weeks later, I made a decision. Uh, and it was, it was a very hard decision because I really liked the CBC job. You know, I really liked being able to do news that was aimed at kids. Uh, kids my son’s age and cover important topics like we were covering. Um, at the same time, working for an NGO allows you to be a little bit more on the front lines of the action, right? And so one of the first things that I did when I was there was help organize us to join the climate strikes in September because the kids were talking about how they want adults to start stepping up and coming out
Jordan: Did you talk to your son? I guess he would have been almost 10 now, about that decision, about why you’re doing it and what you’re doing?
Joshua: Yeah. He knows. Uh, he’s very excited about listening to this podcast. Kids sometimes have a hard time expressing, especially that age, their feelings. I could tell how proud he was. Uh, he was very excited to join the climate strike in September. Kids talk about climate all the time. Kids talk about the environment all the time.
Jordan: What do they say between themselves? You’ve heard a lot of it.
Joshua: Yeah. I mean, they, they are, they’re worried that they won’t grow up, that they won’t have a place to grow up into. You know, there was one speech from a girl in Vancouver, uh, that I got sent from the May uh, strikes and she was talking about she’s 13, and she was talking about how she should be talking with her friends about, you know, what they’re, what they’re going to be when they grow up, what job they’re going to have, how many kids they’re going to have, what they’re going to name them. And she doesn’t know if that’s gonna happen.
Jordan: I feel like when, when adults have this conversation about, you know, the quote unquote world, we’re leaving behind for our kids. We often think in timelines that are much longer than the reality of the situation that we’re creating. What do kids think of that? What the kids think of the state of the world right now that we’re giving them?
Joshua: Kids can have two kind of feelings at the same time, right? Uh, they’re very excited that it snowed. Uh, and that they can go toboganing finally. And they’re scared about what happens. But the future is very abstract to a kid. They don’t have anything to compare it to. They’ve only been alive for a few years. So they know it’s this thing that happens when they’re grownups and that the things that they are enjoying now might not be there anymore, but it’s still abstract, like a nightmare that you half-remember.
Jordan: How do you talk to them about that? How do you talk to your son about it?
Joshua: We talk about the little things that we can do and it’s cheating a little bit because this isn’t an individual problem. And to be honest, the industry, uh, wants us to make it an individual problem. They want to blame the consumer. So that we don’t punish the producers so that they can continue to make money and that this is a collective decision. Uh, one of the things in my article was about how my dad was in a environmental theater troupe called the Ozone Players, which is funny. Uh, it was embarrassing at the time, obviously, but what amazing about that is that we fixed the ozone layer problem, mostly, right? What happened was there was a hole. We figured out what was causing the hole. It was chlorofluorocarbons. The world came together in Montreal, pass the Montreal protocol and ban CFCs, and as time goes on, the whole has been repairing itself. And if we had said, uh, girls, stop hairspraying your hair, which was a big thing in the 80s if they voluntarily did that, it would not have fixed the problem. We only fixed the problem because all the world leaders came together. And by the way, the world leaders at the time was like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulrooney. It wasn’t a bunch of lefty pinkos that decided to do this. It was conservatives. Largely that came together and said, well, here’s a problem. Here’s how we fix it. Let’s all fix it together. Boom. They fixed it. Do you remember leaded gas? At some point they were like, leaded gas is bad for everyone. So we’re going to ban it. We’re going to have a transition. You’re going to have, uh, gas stations that offer both for a limited time so that people can get new cars and then it’s just going to be gone. You can’t get it anymore. So we’ve seen examples of how we can deal with carbon emissions. But still after all this time, we’re not doing anything. And the last COP was a failure.
Jordan: There’s two reasons that I wanted to talk to you about this. First is because you’ve done reporting work with kids who can speak directly about it. But second, because as we talked about, you did something different. You took what you were doing and you made a change and you changed what you do for a living. How has that impacted your, your anxiety or your, your fear for the future? Has it helped?
Joshua: Uh, yes. Yeah, it has helped. I mean, I, I’m still anxious as you could hear, like my voice cracks on occasion only when we’re talking about kids though, like, that is still like this anxiety that I have. Um, but I feel like I’m doing something, not just informing people. Although my job as an editorial specialist is still informing people, but I’m working directly with scientists and we’re not just trying to get the word out. We’re working, uh, with government. We’re working with businesses. We’re trying to get a change happen. We’re trying, we’re looking at the future and what possible climate refuges can exist for animals that are going to be pushed out of their current ranges. We’re looking at how climate affects biodiversity as with the animals that have all been killed in Australia from the fires. Uh, as with all the ice dependent species, what’s going to happen with them when the ice is gone? Uh, and we’re looking at, um, nature-based solutions, which is like restoring habitats, um, because trees suck up carbon, and if we can put them in the right place and have the right mix, it can also not just mitigate climate change, but it can help adapting, like it can reduce flooding problems and it can help deal with fires and things. So every day I feel like, you know, it’s hard, but I feel like we’re trying to do, make actual change happen. Not just suggest it. I’ve been trying to like do self care by playing video games and watching The Good Place and trying to like not fixate too much on climate outside of work hours, just for like my mental health.
Jordan: Makes sense. Thanks Joshua.
Joshua: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Joshua Ostroff, former journalist now with the World Wildlife Fund. That was The Big Story. You want more, you know where to get them, thebigstorypodcast.ca. Also find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn or head to your favorite podcast player. Look us up. Subscribe rate five stars and review. Just so we know who you are and what you think. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.