How one mom uses polar bears to teach the public, and her son, about climate change

As manager of education and programs with the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, Karen Lind spends a lot of time in close proximity to polar bears. The Conservancy encompasses the 280 acre Assiniboine Park, the zoo and its Journey to Churchill exhibit that houses 11 rescued bears, and a polar bear research centre. As someone who teaches conservation, it is pretty convenient for Lind to have the poster animal for climate change on hand as a point of reference. We — of course — wanted to know more about the bears, and how this mom talks about climate change with her eight year old son.

How thrilling is to see polar bears at work?

I forget how privileged I am to work in an environment where on any given day I can walk out and see 11 polar bears, and have them swim over the top of my head (the exhibit has a tunnel you walk through so you can see the bears swimming). I forget how amazing that is until I’m standing there listening to a fully mature adult melt into a four year old on Christmas morning when they see the bears. You never quite lose sight of how majestic they are though you do get a little desensitized! And, I adore the polar bears and have the utmost respect for them, but they are really stinky, like a wet dog but 10 times worse!

Image from the Journey to Churchill exhibit, courtesy of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy.

Does having a polar bear research centre on-site help to educate people about conservation?

Yes, our role is to be ready to communicate their findings to the public, whether through schools or adult-centered workshops. It’s our job to share those findings and make them meaningful for our participants. But, it is all about finding the right angle to tie into the issue. If you are with us for a horticulture workshop, what do you care about the polar bears? It’s our job to find those connections. That’s the excitement of education, and connecting to people’s values is a pretty important piece of that. They may not be your values, but they have significant importance to how that person will connect with sustainability and conservation.

How does it feel when you have engaged young people attending events that you’ve held at the conservancy related to climate change?

Humbling. When I think back to myself that life stage, that wouldn’t have been me. I didn’t have a global understanding of the impact of climate change — or global warming as we called it at that point. It reminded me how important it is to remember that our youth are under extreme pressures and stresses because of the state of our world. I was reminded of how important it was to not just be giving it to them to deal with. We honor their knowledge, we honor their passion, we honour their energy, we also honour the fact that they are still youth and they shouldn’t be handed all of our problems. That was a big one for me. It’s a palpable weight they carry.

What does your son think about what you do?

He might sometimes get tired of me talking about the issues around saving polar bears. When he was in grade one, I realized that I talked — a lot — about the issues we communicate at the park and zoo. We were running errands that weekend and he said, “You know mom, I’m feeling really bad because we’ve been using the car lot this weekend.” I explained yes, he was right, but a lot of the errands we’d been running weren’t convenient to do on public transit. He said, “ I don’t know mom. How come Justin Trudeau isn’t doing anything? How come we’re not seeing any changes to the environment.” I said, “You know what? He needs to know that’s a top priority, you should write him a letter.” So he did — and he got a response.

That was great in two ways. First, it introduced him to the significance of politics and the environment, that you can’t have one without the other — you have to have political action to save the environment. Secondly, he got a response from Justin Trudeau’s office, saying it was a big issue for him and he was committed to it. When those pipelines were approved last year now second grade son was actually quite upset. He said, “But he told me this was a priority for him.” And I said, “I know dear, these are the issues we have to keep on top of, we can never think, Oh don’t worry let the politicians solve it. It’s our job to always keep this in their line of sight.”

I think a lot of people are scared to talk to the kids about this stuff.

You know what I think is worse? Not gradually introducing the issue and having them be aware. This way, when they do come to an age it’s suddenly apparent, they can deal with it because it’s not a shock. Talking about it and helping them understand the reasons for the behaviors that you choose helps them lay the foundation for what they are going to do, and lets them know you’re already doing something about it.

My son knows the decisions about where we live and how we live are largely influenced by trying to mitigate our impact on climate change. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t know we were trying to do anything about it. He’d just see this huge problem. I think that’s an element he wouldn’t understand. We have been doing something about this the whole time, so he gets over feeling overwhelmed. I get that you don’t want to scare them, and I don’t want to scare my son, but our messaging has never been about fear. It’s always been about us making the right choices in our lives so that we aren’t making the problem worse.

Making the right choices isn’t always easy.

I haven’t fully gone over the cliff in terms of my lifestyle. The reality is I haven’t been able to fully commit to a significantly reduced carbon lifestyle and it comes down to travel, that’s ultimately where I fail. We have a cabin two hours away, so what are we doing every summer? It’s a two hour road trip every other weekend to be at the lake and commune with nature. But, my son sees I make choices that aren’t always convenient in order to better for the environment, and I think that’s really important.


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