The Big Melt podcast helps address youth’s growing concerns towards climate crisis

WOODBRIDGE – For many people, climate change is something that is happening ‘out there,’ but isn’t something that affects them personally. For those of us living on Manitoulin Island and indeed, almost anywhere in Northern Ontario and many other regions within Canada, the natural environment is not something removed from our way of life. We interact with it daily. Many Island schools are certified Ontario Eco-schools and have Go Green clubs. Our youth care passionately about the environment and are becoming increasingly aware of the climate crisis and the immediate need for action and positive solutions.

For teens who don’t know where to start or who want to educate themselves further, The Big Melt podcast created by Earth Rangers Foundation speaks to them in their own voices. Podcast narrator Sarah speaks to scientists, educators, politicians and other experts as well as other teens over 13 episodes that cover topics such as tipping points, storms, technology, policies, adaptation, climate myths and solutions.

“When we were first ideating the theme of the podcast and the different episode themes we spoke to a number of groups like environment clubs at middle schools and high schools across the country to get their perspective on what areas interest them, what they want to learn more about, what their concerns were,” said Tovah Barocas, president of Earth Rangers Foundation. “That kind of thing helped shape Sarah’s focus in the different episodes and then we tried to interview as many youths as possible. We did interview adults as well, climate scientists and we interviewed (Environment and Climate Change Canada) Minister Wilkinson. We also interviewed some First Nations youth and some youth climate activists. We really tried to focus on youth as much as possible. We really tried to show other youth that there are things that they can do, that they can have a real impact and that it’s totally possible to take care of their own future in some ways and not just wait for society to change.”

The podcast is a big departure for the organization, which is the largest kid-based environmental organization in the world. “Our focus since the organization was founded in 2004 has always been on elementary aged kids whereas this podcast is targeted more at middle and high school aged kids. We have so many alumni who have participated in Earth Rangers since they were younger. It’s been great to reach out and engage them and let them know we have this new product.”

Earth Rangers brought their school assembly program to several schools on Manitoulin in 2018. The program visits anywhere from five to 800 elementary schools across Canada every year. The live animal show is updated every year to talk about current environmental issues and highlight local conservation projects and different species at risk across Canada. The Earth Rangers program is all about learning about the environment and taking individual action for the environment, explained Ms. Barocas. There is a heavy focus on animals and how environmental issues are impacting animals because evidence has shown that that’s what resonates with kids. “If you can connect evidence with how plastic pollution or climate change or waste diversion or anything like that is impacting animals, it’s more likely to create that emotional connection and get kids really motivated to try to make a difference.”

It’s meant to be educational but inspirational as well. At the end of every Earth Rangers show they ask who wants to be an Earth Ranger and every kid raises their hand, she said. 

There is an award-winning Earth Rangers podcast for elementary-aged children and an Earth Rangers app was launched in January. The Big Melt was created for middle school to high school-aged youth and had its launch at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. While listenership for podcasts in general is down (likely because adults tend to consume podcasts while driving), both the Earth Rangers and The Big Melt podcasts have seen increased downloads and listenership during COVID, said Ms. Barocas. “It’s nice to know that your kids are listening to something that’s educational but they’re not staring at a screen. That’s the same approach that we’ve tried to take with our app. This sounds counterintuitive because an app is accessed through a device like an iPad or a tablet or a phone, but the way the app is designed is that you access the activities through it but everything you do is offline. You might learn about pollinators on the app but then you’re encouraged to plant a pollinator garden which you can’t do by staring at a screen. We try to make sure that while we’re utilizing technology to reach kids where they are in order to have our programs compelling to them but at the same time making sure that this is a real-world program that addresses real world issues and that it engages kids in the real world as well.”

Ms. Barocas doesn’t have a favourite episode, but the myth busting segments are some of her favourite parts. In these segments, Sarah dispels different climate myths and provides the facts behind them. Ms. Barocas feels it’s more effective to hear facts from peers rather than government officials, celebrities or scientists. “When you’re a youth it’s nice to not hear competing views from adults but from someone you can relate to really telling you how it is.”

While COVID-19 has added another layer of anxiety for many people, the concept of a green recovery is a potential good thing to emerge from the pandemic, she believes, as things like reduced air travel have improved greenhouse gas emissions slightly. “You don’t want to overstate what’s been done in a few months because you don’t want to give this false impression that these are easy issues to solve: they’re not and you don’t want to make them seem like they are,” she said. 

“At the same time it does show that certain things are possible and maybe as a country and as a society, we can come together after this and look at what changes we might want to maintain even after the pandemic is over. More than ever it’s important to focus on tangible solutions, these things that we can do now, things that can make a difference and also circling back and reporting on those actions so on the podcast we tried to talk to people who are taking action and whose actions are starting to have a real impact.”

Finding solutions has been a big focus of Earth Rangers over a number of years, Ms. Barocas said. “It’s important to focus on the actual issue and to make sure that we’re giving an accurate view of what’s going on in the world and the fact that there is reason to be concerned. We must also spend an equal or greater amount of time on the solutions; what people are doing and what you can do in your own life.” The organization aims for a more positive spin on it as much of the environmental news that kids are hearing can be overwhelming and negative, leaving them feeling a little bit hopeless.

Season one has come to an end and they’re back producing new episodes for the Earth Rangers podcast. The plan is to produce new episodes of The Big Melt in 2020/21. “We think it’s a really good opportunity and maybe an opportunity to take some of that content and provide it to teachers,” she said. “The podcast can be sliced and diced into different segments however you want so maybe teachers can use some of it in their own classrooms to bring to light different lessons that they might already be teaching.”

The Big Melt project was funded in part by the federal government’s Climate Action Fund. Minister Wilkinson said in an August 28 statement, “The climate action we are taking today will impact future generations, and stand as our legacy to reduce our carbon footprint. We encourage young Canadians to participate in climate change conversations and learn how to make a difference and be part of the solution.”

Listen to The Big Melt on most podcast platforms including Apple, Google and Spotify.