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Sept. 27, 2020

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Vancouver couple take meaningful steps to address daughters’ climate change worries

By , Columbian Features editor
Published:
7 Photos
Sarah, from left, Vivian, Lucy and Chris Collmer walk their dog, Teddy, in the Hough neighborhood of Vancouver. The Collmer family tries to walk for excursions downtown to reduce carbon emissions. Sarah Collmer said they have come to really enjoy this time together. "You notice more things and connect with the community more," she said.
Sarah, from left, Vivian, Lucy and Chris Collmer walk their dog, Teddy, in the Hough neighborhood of Vancouver. The Collmer family tries to walk for excursions downtown to reduce carbon emissions. Sarah Collmer said they have come to really enjoy this time together. "You notice more things and connect with the community more," she said. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Melting glaciers. Rising seas. Devastating storms. Wildfires.

Children are well aware of the unfolding climate crisis — and they’re anxious about it. Given that climate change will exact its toll on future generations, they are also stepping up to try to stop it.

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl, has become the voice of her generation’s call to halt greenhouse-gas emissions. In the United States, children have brought lawsuits against federal and state governments for not acting to limit climate change. And millions of kids worldwide protested in September’s Global Climate Strike.

Lucy Collmer, 12, and her sister, Vivian, 9, of Vancouver were among them. Lucy had already heard about climate-related trouble, but she found a video in her middle-school science class about melting glaciers particularly upsetting.

“It scares me that’s happening at such a rapid pace because of what we’re doing,” she said.

“Sometimes when we talk about it, it seems like science fiction,” Vivian added. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to go to another planet.”

The girls have urged their parents to take steps to reduce the family’s environmental impact — and it’s not like Sarah and Chris Collmer weren’t already making efforts. The couple opposed a biomass plant proposed for downtown Vancouver that was scuttled in 2011. Then they turned their attention to protesting coal and oil trains passing through town.

The family has sampled vegan cheese and reduced meat consumption. The Collmers think twice before buying anything. They try to walk from their cozy home in the Hough neighborhood when they have errands nearby.

“We’ve always been interested in environmental issues. Once we had kids, we felt compelled to protect both their current health and their future,” Sarah Collmer said. “If your kid is telling you that you need to change your behavior, you’ve got to listen to that.”

Justified anxiety

The Collmers said it’s hard to see their young girls feel so burdened.

“It is really scary and overwhelming,” Chris Collmer said. “But if you look at the science, it’s not over. There’s a chance to do something but the chance is right now. It’s time to act.”

The earth’s atmosphere serves as a greenhouse to keep the planet warm and habitable. The amount of heat-trapping gases — mainly carbon dioxide and methane — is increasing, however, as they pump out of industrial smokestacks, power plants, cars and even cattle.

Scientists say this has warmed the planet, fueling extreme weather and melting glaciers and ice caps, which in turn causes sea levels to rise. The average global temperature has increased a little more than a degree Fahrenheit since the first United Nations conference to tackle climate change in 1992, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Global greenhouse gas emissions have increased 1.5 percent annually over the past 10 years, according to a recent U.N. report. To avert the impending climate catastrophe, emissions should have been declining. It would take emissions reductions of 7.6 percent every year between 2020 and 2030 to turn the tide, the report stated.

World leaders are gathered in Madrid through Friday for the U.N. Climate Conference to discuss what to do.

Americans are no longer in denial: 69 percent think global warming is happening, and 62 percent are worried about it, according to a survey this spring by centers on climate change communication at Yale and George Mason universities.

Among teenagers, 7 in 10 believe climate change will harm their generation, according to a September Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

This growing awareness takes a toll on mental health.

Therapists now are reporting that patients bring up anxiety about future climate impacts in their sessions, said Dr. David Pollack, a professor emeritus at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland and an organizer of the nonprofit Climate Psychiatry Alliance.

Children, in particular, are distressed.

“Kids are not blind to this … and they’re alarmed with just cause,” Pollack said. “They have much more of their future ahead of them than we do. It’s with good reason they are expressing this concern.”

When patients have irrational anxieties, therapists might help put those worries in perspective or offer reassurance, Pollack said.

“But what about people who have absolutely justifiable concerns?” he said. “It creates a kind of clinical conundrum.”

Parents face the same conundrum when their children come to them with worries about climate change. It’s not like reassuring a child afraid of a monster lurking under the bed.

“It makes no sense to pretend as if there’s no problem,” Pollack said.

Small steps

Children growing up today have plenty to worry about, climate change included, said Andrew Tucker, community director in Vancouver for Children’s Home Society of Washington. The nonprofit provides child and family counseling.

He recommends that parents first listen deeply to children’s concerns. Then parents should follow up with questions: What have you heard? How do you feel about it? What do you think should be done?

“The most important message is that supportive relationships with caring adults can buffer stress,” Tucker said. “Techniques aren’t as significant as the relationship.”

Open discussion builds that relationship. Pollack said parents shouldn’t avoid the topic of climate change, but explain it in age-appropriate ways to help children understand. Young children would get the simplest version, but a teenager could handle greater detail.

“Include in that some reassurance that the older generation is aware of the problem and working on it,” Pollack said.

Taking small steps like walking and biking instead of driving, or shifting to a more plant-based diet, can also help improve children’s outlook, Pollack said.

That should be approached carefully, however.

“The sense of agency is a really big deal — not feeling powerless and out of control,” Tucker said. “But I think we need to be careful about making a child feel like they’re responsible for climate change.”

Even so, action can be a powerful antidote. Pollack pointed to research that found those who actively collaborated in recovery efforts after natural disasters experienced less emotional distress than those who didn’t.

Thunberg herself said she became very depressed about climate change when she was 11. She began her solo protests in front of the Swedish parliament in August 2018.

She has inspired children around the world, including Lucy and Vivian Collmer.

“It’s cool that she’s taking action,” Vivian said.

The Collmers are continuing to weigh changes they can make at their house.

They’re avoiding self-defeating all-or-nothing thinking — that they have to become completely vegan and give up their cars. Instead, they’re studying what manageable changes make the most difference.

Given that agriculture accounts for 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the family has been talking about food choices.

Chris Collmer is a teacher at the Center for Agriculture, Science and Environmental Education in Brush Prairie. He taught a unit about the relative climate impacts of various foods: Beef production creates more emissions than dairy, which creates more than chicken, which creates more than lentils. The Collmers aren’t cutting out meat and cheese, but they’re asking themselves if they could they eat less of it.

Transportation accounts for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Collmers already drive an energy-efficient hybrid car. But they’re looking for opportunities to walk and bike more.

“We have a long way to go,” Sarah Collmer said. “The more we move in that direction, the easier it becomes.”

Lucy added, “I think it’s important that you know these things and that you don’t just give up.”

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