Category Archives: education

Climate and Mental Health Series in the Toronto Star

Earlier this week — Sunday and Monday — the Toronto Star ran several stories of mine that draw a direct link between climate change and mental health.

OuchterlonyThe first story, which to my pleasant surprise was run above the fold on A1 on Sunday, starts with Ontario coroner and former palliative care physician David Ouchterlony, who says his anxiety and despair over the growing climate threat has affected him more deeply — emotionally and psychologically — than the years he spent caring for dying patients or investigating causes of death. But Ouchterlony isn’t alone. The mental health impacts of climate change, particularly on those most vulnerable to it, is expected to grow and could become a serious public health crisis that we’re not prepared for and which, in Canada, is not even on the radar. This article provides an overview of the issue, how the American Psychological Association is taking it seriously, and how its Canadian counterpart and public healthy agencies in Canada aren’t really paying attention to this sleeper of an issue. Be sure to also read Ouchterlony’s own words in this thoughtful response to an e-mail I sent him last month asking: How is something like concern over climate change different from the kinds of feelings you have as a coroner, or had as a palliative care physician?

The same day the Star also ran a story focused on farmers, and how crazy and more extreme weather events linked to climate instability are making an already tough job more difficult. Farmers are a group with some of the highest rates of depression and suicide, and the fear is that climate change is going to make the situation worse for their mental health. Again, there’s not a lot of research in Canada looking at this issue, so these people are largely struggling silently.

Prof_Ashlee_Cunsolo_WilloxFinally, on Monday the Star ran my article focused on climate change and its psychological impacts on northern and remote aboriginal communities. The story leans heavily on the pioneering research of Cape Breton University professor Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, who has spent considerable time over the past few years visiting Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, and documenting how populations there are coping mentally with the changes around them and how it’s impacting their way of life. Canada’s north is being disproportionately affected by climate change and these indigenous communities are on the front lines. They need our attention and our help.

The package touches on other vulnerable groups, such as scientists/environmentalists, the poor and elderly, and those directly affected by extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and hurricanes. This last group I would categorize as sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The other groups are struggling with a more anticipatory, existential kind of anxiety about climate change that can fuel hopelessness, despair, guilt and depression. Some might group this as “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” which I think is a useful term. A person quoted in one of my stories called it “the slow drip of climate change.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 6.23.37 PMAs expected, some have commented that the series is alarmist and will only serve to feed anxieties. If telling the truth is alarmist, then so be it. Others will say I dwelled only on the problem and didn’t get deep enough into the discussion of how to bolster mental resilience. I should have focused more on positive developments, emerging new technologies, and adaptation as a way to short-circuit anxieties. I agree, that discussion is needed and that discussion will come. But first I had to identify that the mental health challenge is real — that it exists and has the potential to grow much worse as evidence of climate change becomes more apparent in our daily lives.

The first step to finding solutions is admitting we have a problem, and while only a small slice of the population suffers psychologically from what might flippantly be called the climate blues, I would argue that it’s a process we all have to go through if we are to become — emerge — more mentally resilient to the changes in our surrounding environment and how they affect our lives.

So let’s have the discussion. Let’s recognize the problem. Let’s devote resources to research. Let’s create a plan and the necessary support as part of municipal, provincial and federal adaptation measures. Both the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Psychological Association need to develop a position, remembering it’s both a public health concern and something that can affect the country’s economic productivity.

Finally, feel free to reach out if you have a story to share.

The rise of Cli-Fi says something about our times

Four years ago, having just published a book of non-fiction, I was drawn to the idea of experimenting with fiction writing. Specifically, I wanted to write a dystopian novel that was a cross between Logan’s Run and Blade Runner.

Climate change and the eventual draconian measures to keep it under control – declining country-assigned population caps, for one – would drive the narrative through characters who, in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves among society’s most vulnerable.

Working title: Cap and Cull.

Why venture into fiction? It seemed to me like a better way to educate people about an otherwise complex – and I expect for most – boring topic. I tried to do this in my book Mad Like Tesla. The idea there was to lure people into learning about alternative energy technologies and climate challenges by telling the stories of real-world inventors and entrepreneurs doing some pretty inspiring, and arguably wacky, work.

The book did okay, at least by Canadian standards, selling about 5,000 copies. A far cry from the 600,000 sold as part of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy, or for that matter the 30 million copies of Hunger Games – both books set in a world disrupted and devastated by climate change.

Despite being popular with Tesla and energy nerds like myself, the problem with my book is that it preached largely to the converted. The challenge, and this is where I think good fiction becomes important, is to reach the people not already singing in the choir. That means telling a compelling story. It is through protagonist and antagonist, action, love, suspense, treachery and dare say a dose of hope that historical and scientific facts about climate change, and an informed perspective about its impacts on our future, become more accessible – and palatable – for the masses.

I’m not alone in this thinking. Bernie Bulkin, former chief scientist at oil giant BP, wrote a commentary for Huffington Post in 2013 that spoke to the growing importance of what has come to be known as “cli-fi” – or climate fiction.

“It has seemed to me lately that cli-fi has to be one part of the answer to the problem many of us are trying to solve: How do we engage people more broadly and more deeply on climate change?” he wrote.

The word cli-fi, as far as we know, has been around since climate blogger Dan Bloom coined it. It started to gain traction, however, after writer Scott Thill, reporting for Wired magazine, included it as a keyword in a movie review of The Age of Stupid, a pseudo documentary about of a climate-ravaged world in 2055 and the missteps of humanity that led to it.

Since then, it seems the presence of the cli-fi genre in popular culture has grown, perhaps alongside our collective angst as the real impacts of climate change and the challenges of managing it become clearer. It’s not that eco-apocalypse theme novels are new, but it’s clear those anchored specifically around climate change have been on the rise in recent years.

CarbonDiariesSo much so that B.C.’s Moon Willow Press launched a website in August 2013 called (since renamed, which reviews cli-fi novels and maintains a database of such books. Many of those books are aimed at young adults. These include Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis, Floodland by Marcus Sedgewick and Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries 2015.

And let’s not forget self-publishing, yet another cultural barometer of the public’s climate angst. Diana Rissetto, a New York-based publicity agent for self-published authors, approached me last November about Declan Milling’s Carbon Black, a cli-fi thriller.

At the time, I asked Rissetto if she’d seen a rise in the number of self-published cli-fi books crossing her desk. “Actually, yes!” she replied, as if surprised by her own answer. “We’ve had three in just the past few months.” Prior to that, she hadn’t seen any.

Film, of course, is also playing a big role. Again, we’ve seen movies in the past that can be interpreted as cli-fi, even though they don’t mention the words climate change. George Miller’s 1979 classic Mad Max and its superior sequel, Road Warrior, are among my favorites. Another (lower quality) example is the 1995 film Waterworld, starring Kevin Costner trying to survive in a world flooded by melting ice caps.

But as a dystopian theme, climate catastrophe seems to be a more popular backdrop these days. The South Korean film Snowpiercer, the blockbuster Interstellar by Christopher Nolan, and Young Onesstarring Michael Shannon are recent examples.

To what degree are cli-fi books and movies impacting today’s youth? It’s difficult to say, as one could just as easily ask how much youth are impacting growth of the cli-fi genre.

What’s clear is that today’s teenagers and young adults, as digitally connected as they are, know more than any other generation that the fiction they see in popular culture could well be the reality they inherit.

Tracking the transition to a low-carbon economy: $5.2 trillion invested since 2007, according to report

gts_1.13_web_mediumEthical Media Markets calls itself an independent publisher of research reports and other information related to the emerging green economy, and every six months it comes out with an annual and mid-year update to its Green Transition Scoreboard. The scoreboard has been tracking private investments in the green economy globally since 2007. In its August 2013 report, it highlighted what it is calling a “dramatic mid-year surge” in cumulative global investment since 2007, rising to $5.2 trillion by August from $4.1 trillion in February. And remember, this is private investment — i.e. it excludes investment in government projects.

The jump, according to the report, is partially driven by the following trends: “…the write-down of fossil fuel assets; the inevitable wave of nuclear plants due to be retired; the exposing of hypothetical forecasts of 100 years of shale gas; and the decline of large, centralized electricity generation.”

Nearly $2.4 trillion has gone into renewable energy investments, making it the largest investment theme out of the $5.2 trillion total. Energy efficiency investments represent $1.33 trillion, followed by green construction at $880 billion, corporate R&D at $378 billion and remaining “cleantech” at $235 billion. Ethical Markets Media says it comes up with these numbers by scanning reports from Cleantech Group, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, Reuters and many UN and other international studies and individual company reports.

The report has a narrow definition of “green” investment. It excludes funds invested in nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and biofuels, with some limited exceptions. Even so, it projects the $10 trillion investment mark will easily be reached by 2020 and, alongside this increase, we will see a transition away from fossil fuels.

Says the report: “Increasingly, worldwide regulations are leaving fossil fuel investments as stranded assets with pension funds heeding the call to divest from fossil fuels and invest in green technologies. Dutch Rabobank will now refuse loans to companies involved in tar sands and shale gas, citing the long-term financial and environmental risks are too large. In July 2013, Storebrand, a major Norwegian pension fund advisor, excluded from its Energy Sector all 13 coal producers and the 6 oil companies with the highest exposure to tar sands ‘to reduce Storebrand’s exposure to fossil fuels and to secure long term, stable returns for our clients…'”

I don’t entirely agree with some of the conclusions this report reaches, but it adds another interesting perspective to the energy transition that is clearly taking place globally. Big dollars are being spent on cleaner forms of energy. That a transition is happening there is little doubt. The question now is: how fast, and can we accelerate it?

Clean Break column in Toronto Star ends a 10-year run…

photoIt was a trip to Iceland in June 2003, just months after the birth of my first daughter, that the immense need for and potential of clean energy first landed on my radar. The Toronto Star agreed to send me there so I could write about Iceland’s efforts to transition to a hydrogen economy. I toured several of the country’s geothermal and hydroelectric facilities. I rode on hydrogen fuel cell buses. I swam in the Blue Lagoon. I spoke with some of the leading academics and engineers in the world working on the hydrogen puzzle. I came back inspired, hungry to learn more — not just about fuel cells and hydrogen, but about this whole emerging area of clean technology, or “cleantech.” It helped that Canadian fuel cell pioneers Ballard Power and Hydrogenics had already captured my interest, but once I looked beyond the “hype about hydrogen” I saw a great diversity of clean technologies at various stages of development. Further boosting my enthusiasm was Nick Parker, founder of the Cleantech Group and the man who coined the term “cleantech.” It was about that time that I first met Nick at a venture capital conference in Toronto. I had covered the technology and telecom scene for five years and was getting bored. The market had tanked. No longer was it interesting to write about faster routers and fatter broadband services. I was more drawn to the optical engineers who left telecom behind and decided to use their skills to boost the potential of solar PV technology and LEDs. Nick and the handful of companies he brought to the venture capital conference only had a small piece of the floor, but they were the most fascinating to cover. I was hooked.

Within just a couple of months after my trip to Iceland, I decided to transition my weekly high-tech column at the Toronto Star into a clean technology column. It began as a bi-weekly effort, but by the following year my transition was complete — Clean Break was a weekly column devoted to cleantech, and a first of its kind in North American for a major daily newspaper. This blog soon followed, one of the first cleantech blogs to hit the blogosphere. Parker’s Cleantech Group recognized this in 2005 by selecting me for the Cleantech Pioneer award. What Nick liked about the Clean Break column is that it was in the business section of the newspaper, which conveyed the idea that most of the technologies I was writing about weren’t destined to be money-losing propositions but were either competitive today or had the potential to be competitive; that tackling climate and other environmental issues through efficiency and using carbon-free technologies was a way to boost productivity and global competitiveness. Readers also liked the emphasis on solutions, as opposed to dwelling on environmental problems. I didn’t see myself as an environmental reporter, at least not of the traditional sort — that is, only investigating and exposing bad apples, and only telling readers how much things sucked. That was just too depressing. I liked highlighting innovation that was going to help get us out of the environmental mess we had created, and even better, help boost revenues and lower costs for companies and governments. I wanted to put less emphasis on environmental compliance (a pure cost) and more emphasis on the embrace of “clean” technologies because it was simply good for business. I thank the Toronto Star for letting me go in this direction, or at least not preventing me from doing so.

Much has changed in the 10 years that have followed. That whole hydrogen thing didn’t turn out as planned. Plug-in vehicles, hardly talked about a decade ago, have taken over and remarkably all of the top auto manufacturers now have pure electric or hybrid-electric models on the market. Sales haven’t been a strong as predicted, but the fact there are tens of thousands of plug-in vehicles on the roads and thousands of high-speed charging stations installed is a dramatic accomplishment in my view. Same goes for solar and wind technologies. Less than 600 megawatts of solar capacity were installed in 2003. That figure has surpassed 30,000 megawatts, meaning the market has grown 50-fold over the past decade, and we’ll see another 10-fold expansion by 2020. Currently there are about 96,000 megawatts of total solar capacity installed worldwide, a figure that’s expected to reach 330,000 megawatts in seven years. In other words, since starting my Clean Break column solar has gone mainstream — a combination of plunging prices and progressive government policies. The wind industry, which had an installed capacity of about 39,000 megawatts in 2003, has grown to have a total capacity that now stands at 283,000 megawatts. These are huge numbers. Last year, an astonishing $269 billion was invested in clean energy infrastructure. In 2010, investments in renewable energy exceeded investments in fossil fuelled power plants for the first time, a major global milestone. Venture capital in cleantech, depending on how you define it, jumped from about $1 billion to over $8 billion from 2005 to 2011 (it’s now around $6 billion). The market for cleantech is, generally speaking, a trillion-dollar global opportunity.

Media coverage of the industry — new and traditional — has also changed. In 2005 my blog was among a handful of blogs consistently covering the cleantech space, and my column was unique in North American, at least for a mainstream daily newspaper. Now, as I wrote in my book Mad Like Tesla, “I am but one small voice in a sea of dedicated news sites, columns, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitterers all covering different angles of this clean energy revolution and advocating for a faster transition away from fossil fuels. We may complain that the transition is going too slowly — it can never move fast enough — but looking back it’s amazing we have come this far so quickly.” As coverage of the sector increased, my own writings became increasingly regional and local. Most of my Clean Break columns for the past few years have focused on my home province of Ontario or home city of Toronto. I’ve most enjoyed writing about Canadian or Ontario-based clean technology startups or innovators trying to raise the bar on efficiency and lower environmental footprints. My columns have covered LEDs, solar power, wind power, demand-response, green chemistry, smart grid innovation, water technologies, geothermal, biofuels (with a big focus on algae), electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage, nuclear, wave and tidal power, biogas, waste reduction, energy storage, advanced materials… you name it. I have learned so much, met so many wonderful and smart people, made new friends and played my own little part in helping Canadian companies get attention locally and globally. It has been tremendously satisfying.

Why am I writing all of this now? Well, because this July would have been the 10-year anniversary for my Clean Break column in the Toronto Star. Also, just before I went to Costa Rica earlier this month for vacation, I got a call telling me that my column had been cancelled. I can’t say it was entirely unexpected. When I left my full-time staff writing gig at the Star in 2010 to write Mad Like Tesla, the paper’s business editor at the time agreed on a handshake to let me keep writing the column. Three editors have come and gone from the business section since then and during each transition the axe was expected to come. It didn’t, and frankly, I’m amazed I made it this far. It’s been a great run. The fact is, the newspaper industry is going through a painful transition and there’s no indication this is temporary. In fact, the pain indicates something that may be terminal. The Star recently announced it was outsourcing its pagination and copy editing functions to save costs and that 55 jobs would be cut. Sections across the paper have been asked to slash budgets, and the axe falls easily on freelance columns. This is an unfortunate sign of the times. That my column was discontinued is also a sign of the times. Clean energy may be the future and climate change is the biggest threat to our existence, but that didn’t stop the New York Times from recently dismantling its own environmental reporting team and cancelling its popular green blog. This is both the knee-jerk reaction of an industry that’s suffering, and the reason why this industry is suffering — in my humble opinion.

To be fair to the Star, it did recently hire a global environmental reporter and global science and technology reporter. This is great news. Change is good, and people will get fresh coverage and viewpoints. Let’s hope they stay committed to these beats and give the stories that come out of them the priority and placement they deserve. Me, I’m having a blast as editor of Corporate Knights magazine, where I have been for nearly two years, and I hope to spend the next few years building this publication. We’re doing great things and insightful research — not just in cleantech, but around a number of issues where business and sustainability intersect. I encourage all my readers to sign up for Corporate Knights’ digital subscription, which you can get through iTunes by downloading our app in the App Store (We’re also available on Kindle through, and soon coming to the Android marketplace). Besides, I needed a break from the column and had been considering new directions for it for some time. Its Canada/Ontario/Toronto focus was appropriate for a paper like the Toronto Star, but I want to broaden the message and the audience. Over the coming months I will be looking at a national or North American media platform through which to revive the column, in partnership likely with Corporate Knights. In the meantime, I’ll continue to use this blog to highlight new technologies, emerging issues, breaking news, and whatever else tickles my fancy. The Clean Break brand is here to stay.

Finally, if you were a regular reader of my Clean Break column in the Star, thank you very much for tuning in. Many hundreds, possibly thousands, have reached out to me over the years to convey their appreciation or dislike of the column — fortunately it’s been more of the former. Sometimes people just wanted to exchange ideas. I can’t tell you how heart-warming it is to get an e-mail from a teacher who’s using my column as material for the classroom, or a call from a student who wants to interview me for a class project, or getting Tim Horton’s gift certificates in the mail from an anonymous person thanking me for doing what I’m doing, or getting a call from the founder of a startup who got venture capital funding because of an article I wrote, or having a politician tell me that my coverage of an issue had an impact on policy or legislation. Without readers — even the ones who call you an idiot, and there have been many — there’s no point in writing.

Unfortunately, the Toronto Star would not allow me to do a final farewell column to notify my readers that this is the end of the line, for now. Some of you might have noticed it was no longer being published. But most won’t notice, and I expect this will hold true for many of my colleagues still word-tapping at the Star. Columns come and go, and mine is no different. It would have been nice, however, to thank my Star readers more directly, rather than through the more limited audience that this blog attracts.

“Green” community bonds gather momentum in Ontario

There is plenty of good news happening around community bonds in my home province. SolarShare, for example, announced on Dec. 6 that it had been approved by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario to sell bonds (which offer a 5 per cent annual return) beyond a cap of $1,000. It is now selling up to $25,000, and can go even higher if requests are approved on an individual basis by their board of directors. This has opened up the possibility off pursuing projects more aggressively. The co-op is now going through a process to make its bonds RRSP-eligible. “Once an independent evaluation of SolarShare mortgages that secure your bonds is complete and we have received a legal opinion based on that evaluation, a self-directed RRSP account can be opened through Concentra Credit Union via the Canadian Workers Co-op Federation (CWCF),” the co-op reported in a recent newsletter. “You are also welcome to take that legal opinion to your own wealth management representative and request an account through other channels” —  i.e. you can take it to your own bank and make a case for carrying the bonds in your existing self-directed RRSP.

These bonds are a safe investment, so if you’re tired of getting pummeled by the market and want a safe 5 per cent return, you might want to learn more at

SolarShare also announced this week that it has partnered with green energy retailer Bullfrog Power, which is helping to finance future co-op solar projects. As an investor, Bullfrog will also market SolarShare’s “solar bonds” to its existing network of green-minded electricity customers. It’s a great partnership.

Meanwhile, ZooShare Biogas Co-operative — of which I am on the board of directors — is making some solid progress with its plans to take animal poo from the Toronto Zoo and turn it into biogas that will be used  for electricity generation. Ontario’s feed-in-tariff (FIT) program finally opened up again just today for small FIT projects, meaning projects like the one ZooShare is pursuing can now apply for a 20-year power purchase agreement with the province. ZooShare has plenty of members now, including the  required number of Toronto property owners, so now we just apply to the FIT program and sit tight for a contract offer. As soon as that comes, it’s full steam ahead…

I’m really hyped about the ZooShare project. If we can show how it’s done, we can replicate the approach in zoos across North America. The pootential is huge, if you’ll excuse the pun. Like SolarShare, community bonds will also be offered for this project, promising a generous 7 per cent annual return based on current calculations. The fact that SolarShare has blazed the trail to get approval from the Financial Services Commission bodes well as we prepare to file our bond offer prospectus. That precedent, as well as the precedent being set for RRSP-eligibility, will also prove beneficial.

For past articles explaining the concept of community bonds and describing the  above projects, click here and here.