Welcome to Off The Grid 2023! Since 2019, Planet S’ annual Earth Day feature has collected environmental essays by grade nine students in Tommy Douglas Collegiate’s Off The Grid program — a half-day, school-year-long experience that introduces participants to concepts like ecology, sustainability, social justice and of course climate change. Off The Grid also connects students with farmers, beekeepers, scientists and academics and environmental organizations to create powerful opportunities for learning and engagement. Perhaps best of all, it’s also an all-weather outdoor adventure that fosters appreciation for the beauty and importance of nature.
The essays that follow represent the voice of a generation that will lead society in the years and decades ahead — times sure to be full of dramatic changes and critical challenges. We hope you enjoy this ongoing partnership. Now let’s head Off The Grid! —Stephen Whitworth
Not a Magic Trick: Earth’s Disappearing Plants and Animals
By Savanna Papunen and Selena Marud
Every generation of kids learns by asking questions about things from the past to understand the present. But what if our future has a shortage of wild animals?
Notable endangered Saskatchewan animals include the red-headed woodpecker, burrowing owl, lake trout and the swift fox. Other species, like the threatened woodland caribou, might not last long in Saskatchewan, either. One problem is that when developers and city councils decide they want to build things, they don’t always take the environment into consideration. This can lead to fragmented habitats and outright habitat loss, and it causes animals like the caribou to move away. As development and habitat loss continues, some populations might not be able to find the moss and greens they feed on.
Also, native fauna and flora have been decimated by invasive species.
“A species that goes extinct will have a great impact,” says Meewasin’s interpretive programs coordinator Jamie Harder. “It is a loss that can never be recovered.”
So how can we help?
For starters, we can plant native species in our backyards, schoolyards and public places. We can put up bird houses specifically designed for our threatened and endangered species.
But the best start, always, is to push ourselves to learn more about species extinction.
Feedback Fear: Melting Permafrost sparks Rising Emissions
By Hachem Al Jneid and Cohen Van Horne
Permafrost is common in northern Canada. It might not stay that way.
Recent summers’ heatwaves, combined with longer and hotter seasons, have warmed the ground. Warmer ground temperatures lead to melting permafrost. When permafrost melts, it makes the ground shift, sink and become unstable.
All this puts Canadian infrastructure at risk. Melting permafrost can cause flooding, landslides and soil erosion. This means potential damage to roads, bridges, buildings and pipelines.
The bigger concern, though, is that thawing permafrost releases more greenhouse gases — including carbon dioxide and methane — into the atmosphere. This creates a feedback loop of rising temperatures that 1.) melts permafrost increasing GHG emissions, which 2.) pushes temperatures even higher.
A runaway feedback loop is the dangerous tipping point in our battle against climate crisis.
Worse, many scientific projections of global emissions didn’t account for the permafrost thawing as quickly as it has, which means this tipping point could happen much sooner than feared.
Soggy Socks? Blame It On the Rain
By Casey Betke and Zachary Asmundson
Flooding is a big issue in this city. We’ve seen it in our neighborhoods — it’s not fun to walk around in an inch of water. With around 20 centimetres of rain every year, Saskatoon often seems soggy but the good news is there are plans, programs and procedures in place to help with flooding.
One interesting example is the federal government’s flood prevention funding, which creates a province-wide opportunity to make “dry” ponds. At one time, this was not popular but it has shown to be a good idea as those ponds fill up with water after heavy rainfalls.
More ponds — and more measures — are needed, however. Areas like Saskatoon’s Fairhaven and many other neighborhoods still get overwhelmed with floods, potentially washing out roads and creating unsafe situations.
With climate change, the Saskatchewan’s flood risk is increasing. Our province must carefully manage dam flows to maintain safe levels of water flowing.
Flooding affects all of us from the boomers to the zoomers. We have to work together to stop it by pushing for more climate change initiatives… and being ready to help our soggy neighbours out.
Bloom Gloom: the Yucky, Mucky Blue-Green Menace
By Jaylee Chabot and Chandi Ironquil
As the weather warms and snowmelt pools, the threat of blue-green algal blooms rises.
Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, thrives in warm, stagnant, nutrient-rich water. It often forms foamy, floating sludge mats or clumps onto rocks and wood in lakes, ditches and ponds. The excess nutrients that feed the algae often come from fertilizer runoff depositing excess phosphorus in the water. That means your highly fertilized green lawn could contribute to an algal bloom somewhere else in our watershed.
Blooms can last up to three weeks. They can spread through water currents into nearby reservoirs and other bodies of water.
Blue green algae is toxic and poses a threat to anyone who’s come into contact with it. Ingesting algae-contaminated water can cause vomiting, nausea, headaches, fever and abdominal pain.
No one needs turquoise foam floating in their drinking water, so let’s tighten up the rules on what we can put into our runoff.
A Growing Problem: Drought vs Crops and Cattle
By Drake Friesen and Graeme Peters
Droughts are horrible. The stretch from 2020 to 2022 has been labeled “Saskatchewan’s driest years in over a century”.
During these last three sun-scorched growing seasons, farming was difficult, and raising cattle was even harder.
Saskatchewan farmers saw their crop failure rates rise to record highs, with some of them suffering a 47 per cent loss. Many cattle farmers were forced to thin their herds, because the high cost of feed in a drought made their herds unaffordable. The beef industry is so important that our ministry of agriculture gave $119 million to cattle farmers through the AgriRecovery program, a jointly funded federal-provincial program that helps farmers recover from crop and livestock losses.
Crops and livestock aren’t the only things affected by drought. Forests are also heavily impacted. Forest fires are becoming more intense and frequent every year. It’s all just another reason why we need to fight climate change. Not only will this help our forests not burn, but it will also save us having to annually reimburse farmers for losses outside their control.
My Piggy Bank is Losing Weight: Inflation Vs Climate Change
By Brayden Soanes and Alex Makepeace
Buy food or fight climate change? Does it have to be one or the other?
With inflation rising and many struggling or unable to pay for necessities, the idea that we can’t afford to take climate change action right now might sound sensible. But this is not the time for governments to cut spending on the climate front.
While Saskatchewan (and the world) dawdles, we’re seeing a sixth mass extinction. Extreme weather events are forcing nations to spend billions just to mitigate the loss of animals, ocean life, insects and plants that make human life and civilization possible.
There will always be excuses to delay climate action, but the hard truth is that now is the only time we have to act before it gets to an irreversible point.
Climate change is battering our economy and many people don’t realize that inaction has a high price of its own. Yes, people need to be supported through this time of inflation, but if we use inflation and a bad economy as an excuse to do nothing, the soaring prices and shortages we’re seeing now will just be a small glimpse of what our future looks like.
Reactor Reaction: Pricy Policy or Legit Climate Action?
By Clara Jollimore and Brooklynn Pawliw
Nuclear reactors might be coming to Saskatchewan. These small modular reactors (SMRs) aren’t as big as a traditional nuclear plant, but they produce an estimated 300 megawatts of power that supporters sometimes call “clean energy”.
Clean energy! Sounds great. Why hasn’t Sask. invested in this before? What’s the catch?
Well, there are a few catches. We still don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste, which is a big problem. Then there’s the fact constructing a reactor typically costs far more than the $4 billion projected at planning stages.
Estevan and Elbow are the locations proposed as potential sites for SMRs. Are those communities fully on board?
Since the federal government set the goal to drastically lower Canada’s emissions by 2030, nuclear power is seen as a viable option in Sask., even by some environmentalists. That said, investing in solar, wind, and geothermal would be cheaper and could create plenty of jobs.
Finally, the timeline for reactor construction is years away. Climate change isn’t patient. If other renewable options would be faster, we might want to consider investing there first and letting fission simmer for a while.
Your Spills, My Bills? Why It’s Time to Make Polluters Pay
By Madison Brazeau and Mya Malinski
For now, we must use oil in our day-to-day life whether we like it or not.
But that doesn’t mean we should let oil companies skip out on paying what they owe from the harm their products cause.
One example is the cost of oil spills.
Oil spills damage our environment by wrecking habitats, contaminating water and killing or injuring wildlife, including causing reproductive problems. And yet, every time there’s an oil spill we allow private oil companies to escape paying for much of the damage they have caused. Yes, companies and their insurers might cover some of the clean-up costs, but the taxpaying public usually gets stuck with the biggest bill — especially since cleaning up spill damage and restoring habitat can take years, even decades.
Saskatchewan averages 20 oil spills each year just from broken pipelines. And it’s not just big pipes. University of Regina geography and environmental studies professor Emily Eaton explains that when smaller pipelines break, the leaks can go undetected for longer.
Cleaning spills can cost between $2.4 and 9.4 billion.
The bottom line: oil companies should be regulated more strongly to prevent leaks and spills. This will help protect the environment in the future — a future, hopefully, in which oil isn’t the base of our entire society.
Politically Pathetic: How Sask. Procrastinates on Planet-Protecting Policy
By Sabrina Dykstra and Charlie Morog
Anyone who understands the climate crisis has very good reason to be afraid for our future. To keep the planet from heating above two degrees Celsius, we need major reductions in emissions ASAP. Like, before 2030.
That means every country, state, province, territory, city and town on Earth needs to do its part.
Is Saskatchewan pulling its weight? Not according to a Feb. 2 StarPhoenix column. According to “Sask. First Act an Attempt to Halt Emission Reduction” by Peter Prebble and Glenn Wright, Saskatchewan’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are triple the national average — and eight times the world’s!
And yet, it was a year ago this month at a Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce event in Prince Albert that Premier Scott Moe shared what he tells people worried about Saskatchewan’s sky-high per capita emissions:
“I don’t care,” he said.
He stood by the comment when asked about it three days later.
Everything about this demonstrates the lack of political motivation to fight climate change in this province.
“People are trapped in a binary way of thinking,” says the University of Saskatchewan education department’s Kathryn Riley. “We’re either greenies or capitalist people.”
Think how this causes a problem for politicians, for example. They might care deeply about fighting climate change but don’t want to be dubbed “environmentalists” because it could hurt their re-election chances. But it’s possible to care about more than one topic. When we classify people and politicians into such rigid categories, there is no room for overlap.
Truly, everyone should be a “greenie” if the definition is simply someone who doesn’t want to wreak havoc on the planet.
One thing’s for sure — the choices politicians make today will change the future. Whether that change will be good or bad is unclear, but we’re hopeful that sooner or later, more politicians on both sides of the aisle will put youth’s future first and step up their game to really combat climate change. ■
These essays have been lightly edited. For more information on the Off The Grid program, please visit Tommy Douglas Collegiate’s website.