Climate Conversation: Youth Activist and Climate Grief Researcher Lily Barraclough

“Finding those personal connections and relationships is key for climate grief and eco-anxiety and also solving these issues,” says youth activist and climate grief researcher Lilian Barraclough. In this Climate Conversation, Bluedot’s Toronto-based student reporter Catherine Zita Dias talked with Lily about climate grief, how climate justice intersects with race, and how running for (and losing!) elected office still gives her hope for the future. Watch below, or read the transcript.

Catherine Zita Dias: Lily Barraclough’s life goal is to do everything possible to protect the planet and save lives. Starting her mission at only five years old, Lily has proven she is a strong advocate for environmentalism and social justice. Throughout the years, she has participated in many grassroots activism, street protesting, writing articles, and conducting research. Lily is a 2021 Starfish Canada’s Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25 recipient, a Graduate Research Assistant and Master of Environmental Studies student at Dalhousie University, and a public servant of the government of Nova Scotia. I am so pleased to welcome Lily here today! Thank you so much for joining me! My first question for you is based on your early involvement in environmentalism. So what is your earliest memory of understanding the climate crisis? And how has this impacted your work?

Lily Barraclough: Oh, I was first introduced to environmental issues at age five, as you mentioned in that little bio at the beginning. When I was in senior kindergarten, at age five, my school was very involved in trying to advocate for people to stop idling, especially in front of the school. And I got, had the chance to be a part of our no idling banner, which went up on the school and then was made into bumper stickers, that a lot the school buses around Toronto where I grew up I had put on their, their bumper. And although that’s not directly connected to the climate crisis, that really early introduction of being exposed to advocating for change around environmental issues, really stuck with me and I had the chance to to be involved in the Eco-Club at my school at that time. And, I also grew up in a really environmentally conscious family, my parents are one of the first families in our neighborhood to ever consider getting solar panels on our roof, we primarily use, you know, non-car forms of transportation. So I have had quite a foundation, but I would say I first really understood the severity of the climate crisis and the world that we’re living in, when I was in around grade eight. So it was around 13, 14. And we had a winter where there was almost no snow in Toronto, and the weather did not go below 10 degrees Celsius. And I kind of felt like, you know, that was a  little weird and so I did my own research. And, I was really hoping to find out that it was just normal, and it was nothing to worry about. But obviously that’s not the case. And I really delved into climate change and global average temperature rise. And, so that was kind of a really shocking moment for me. And then after that, I started to learn more about, like, a lot of my family lives in rural eastern Ontario, where there are a lot of ticks. And so there are a lot, a lot of people have Lyme disease, and a lot of our animals and my aunts and uncles started to get Lyme disease. And then I learned that that’s part of, a result of climate changes as well. So it kinda, all those pieces started coming together for me. But that early foundation of when I was in my early years of school and growing up in an environmentally conscious household was really key in my understanding as well.  

Catherine Zita Dias: Nice, yeah! I’m from Toronto too. I wonder if I grew up with the same bumper stickers, but that’s really nice! And I had no idea about the Lyme disease, I did not know that climate change had such a big impact on that. Because whenever I go hiking, my parents are always like, you know, be careful! So it’s really interesting to know that that’s where it comes from. So I’ll move on to my second question, which is how have your personal experiences come into play when working to combat the climate crisis? 

Lily Barraclough: I think that my personal experiences have been a huge part of my ability to, to really delve into this work. I mean, I’m really lucky to have grown up in a, in a position where I have the capacity to really spend most of my time working on these issues. And also having grown up with two mums who are queer, and being really involved, connected to the LGBTQIA community and then also being queer myself has also really informed my experience of being involved in the climate and social justice space. And I would say that, you know, a lot of my work has been really in the intersection and connection between social justice issues and the climate crisis. I really believe that the climate crisis is also an issue, crisis of social injustice, and they’re not separate at all. I would say as well, my deep love and connection to the planet and animals, I’ve always been like, I have horses and I’ve always been very connected to animals has also really motivated me or made me, like, push me to do this work. Because, and so I think the fact that, you know, I’ve been lucky enough to have wonderful experiences connecting to this land and to animals has also really made me more empathetic and compassionate around this work and also really pushed me to do this work. I mean, it’s key that the injustices that humans are facing as a result of climate crisis are alleviated. But ultimately, humans are a part of nature. So it’s, it’s all connected. And I think that connection is also, yeah, a big part of my own experience of the climate crisis and of doing this work.

“A lot of my work has been really in the intersection and connection between social justice issues and the climate crisis. I really believe that the climate crisis is also an issue, a crisis of social injustice, and they’re not separate at all.”

Catherine Zita Dias: Yeah, well, thank you for that answer. And yeah, it does kind of segue to my next question. So you’re talking about … the grief and I definitely resound with that, because it can be extremely overwhelming when you turn on the news, and it’s only just like bad things, forest fires, like, oh, the turtles are dying, like everything! So how do you manage your eco-anxiety and maintain a willingness to keep working towards a healthier future?

Lily Barraclough: It’s really challenging! And I’d say, I, it’s, it’s really a process, there’s no, like, often, I find I have these discussions, or I think because I feel like oh, there should be like one thing, you do it, and then you’re like, okay, now I can separate, uh, you know, I can process, I can move forward. But our world is constantly changing, and so is the systems and these issues. And so it is really, it is a long-term process, it’s something that has to be dealt with on a daily basis. And I find for me, what helps, is, can also be what makes it worse. So sometimes it’s getting involved with, you know, a protest, going and standing, you know, blocking the street and really pushing for that change, you know, in a very physical way. And knowing that, you know, I’m not staying behind my computer, I’m going out and doing something. That can feel really great! But it can also be really exhausting and can lead to burn out. 

Other times what really helps is having the chance to, like go for a hike, or like go to a cabin in the woods for a few days, and just have that chance to really feel that connection to the land and also to kind of have a reminder of, you know, what we’re fighting for. Because it’s not fighting for high rises in downtown of cities, as you know, I mean, there’s a lot of obviously there are people that need help in those downtowns, too. But for me, you know, having a reminder to that, like, although everything is very urgent, the climate crisis is happening. And it’s happening now. We also still have our lives, to live, and we also still have these special spaces. And it would be sad to not, you know, take the time to go and experience them. 

Having really open and honest conversations with those I work with, organizations I’m a part of, my friends, and peers, and family about what I’m feeling. I mean, it’s really difficult. But chances are other people are feeling the same way. And that opportunity to really hear my own experience reflected back to me from people that I care about, or that, or even people I don’t really know and that are just feeling the same thing. That’s very validating and I think that that’s one of the most helpful things that for me personally, and I think having done research with other young people experiencing climate grief, that community piece that having the opportunity to share with others what they’re feeling and also hear how others are are feeling about the climate crisis and injustice and really taking the time to process it is key in moving forward. It’s really a process, I think how I started my answer. But it’s something I’m continuously dealing with is how to manage feelings of grief and anxiety and still do something and move forward. It’s definitely it’s, it’s ongoing.

Catherine Zita Dias: You know, I really like how you talk about pacing and you mentioned you know, highrises downtown. I’m downtown in the year for school. And you can kind of forget what nature is like and how it can make you feel. So I think that’s a really great point that you bring up. And you also talk about your research and youth, which kind of was my next question, which is did the results of your master’s thesis research impact the way you approach climate change with youth? Because you specifically kind of delve into the impact it has on youth and how leadership actually really helps them kind of deal with this grief.

Lily Barraclough: Yeah, so I’m gonna preface by saying that I am still a youth. And so I’m the same age as most of the youth that I worked with, from my research or slightly older. So I’m not so much in a role where I’m, I’m not like, I have been an educator, but I’m not in a role where I’m still delivering programs to youth at this point in time, it’s more of a peer-based research that I did. But I think it’s really, I mean, I went into the research with the motivation of having known that my peers in the climate sphere, in the social justice organizing sphere, had, we’re feeling similar things about climate grief, or having, you know, I’ve seen a lot of people burn out, I’ve seen a lot of my friends and peers had been all in like, like taking all their time, doing so much incredible organizing, and then they just disappeared because they couldn’t keep it up. And so I knew it was an issue, like I knew it was something that most people were dealing with. And I also knew that there just wasn’t much discussion on it. Almost every single person that participated in my research said like, that it had been almost the only time they’d ever had the chance to think about their grief, to really identify it, and talk about it, although it was coming up for them, and on a daily basis, you know, not feeling and, you know, good about the world, like doing having a lot of coping mechanisms, and, and having a burning out having all these challenges. But there hasn’t been a space for people to really connect with others about this. And my research had two components to it, there was an individual component where I had one-on-one interviews with participants. And then there was a group poetry workshop where a facilitator and the participants had the chance to write poetry to reflect on their experience with climate grief, and then connect with each other and debrief. And so I found that, especially in the group component, participants, well art has this really incredible capability to bring out emotions and bring out thoughts and feelings, that maybe you don’t identify just having a conversation. And so I think this research has really, it’s really motivated me to actually, like, implement and live my knowledge of that, because that’s something I did, though, before going into it. But I’m really having the chance to see how it’s impacted a lot of young people who are really involved in this space. And to see how it impacts them on a personal level, but also how it impacts the work that they’re doing. So, yeah, I think it’s definitely, really reinforced my sense that we need to do things differently. And also that like, you know, young people, we know what we need. I think we can learn a lot and benefit a lot as I said from mentorship from older environmentalists or climate activists and building those relationships as well. But we can all also benefit from just having the chance to do what we need to do. There has not been a ton of work to support people, with their climate, grief and ego anxieties, because it’s not a clean-cut issue. Like it’s very complex, it’s different for everyone. It can be a mental health issue. It can be a mental illness that needs, you know, clinical support … most of the mental illness that people experience is a result of, you know, the system that we live in. And I think that chronic grief is a great example of that because it’s something we’re both simultaneously, like COVID, we’re going through it together but not everyone experiences it the same. And it’s important to acknowledge on a community level, on a, you know, population level that this is something that we are experiencing, like whether you know, whether people understand the large scale of climate change. I think people can understand we’ve had more forest fires, we’ve had more droughts. The pandemic is a product of climate change, like all these things that are very real in our daily lives are part of climate change. And, you know, people, friends here, like a lot of people who are not historically or traditionally viewed as people who are concerned about the environment, they’re experiencing those as well. And so I think, finding those personal connections and relationships is key for climate grief and eco-anxiety and also solving these issues.

“I think having done research with other young people experiencing climate grief, that community piece — having the opportunity to share with others what they’re feeling and also hear how others are feeling about the climate crisis and injustice and really taking the time to process it is key in moving forward.”

Catherine Zita Dias: Yeah, thank you, thank you for your answer. And speaking of feelings, on the other side, I guess, of this spectrum, like more positive, what impact did being a Starfish [Award] recipient have on you?

Lily Barraclough: It was, I was really honored to be a Starfish [Award] recipient. And I think one of the biggest impacts was seeing just how many other incredible young people there are doing work across the country. And knowing that that’s only a small portion, too of those who are doing this work. They’re people who are nominated who are doing, you know, health-based work, or they’re in businesses. And so there’s a really wide variety. And I think that … we need people in all areas of society to be truly doing this work. Otherwise, we have no, like, we can’t get to where we need to go. And so really having the chance to be exposed to some of that was really key. And also, I think it’s really wonderful to be able to join a larger network of Starfish as well. And I think the connection, by like, country, national, level connection is really nice. But then also to see each of the recipients is doing very specific work. Most of them in their local communities. And, you know, it’s, I think a lot of climate work really needs to come from local areas. And so being able to see different cities or counties or towns across the country where people are doing really neat things is really inspiring. And, yeah, it’s really neat to see all the different things people are doing.

Catherine Zita Dias: Yeah, definitely! I took a look through all of them, I love how it’s also separated by province, you can see what different provinces are doing. I find there’s also typically similarities, like between provinces doing different things as well, which is really interesting to look at. I particularly like … someone made like a film about it. I studied that in school. So that’s very interesting to me. So there’s different interests for everybody, like you said, that makes it really impactful and which is a larger, a larger audience. So on reaching larger audiences and roles to play, government does have a really big role in how it impacts helping to protect the planet. So in the Summer of 2021, you ran for office in Nova Scotia. What was your goal doing this? And even though you weren’t elected, would you consider running for office again?

Lily Barraclough: Yeah, I and I know this might sound funny, but I went into it knowing there was no chance I was going to win. I ran in my home riding, which is a very … the incumbent was the leader of the provincial NDP party. And he was, there was a very, very high chance he would get re-elected, which he did. So I kind of went into it knowing there was very little chance I’d be elected. I was really involved with writing the platform for the Green Party of Nova Scotia, which is the party I ran for. And so I really had a very strong belief in the message we were putting forward. And it was really focused on listening to the people and really working to leave opportunities for change, but also really get to the root of the issues that we’re facing. So my approach when I ran was really to listen to what people are concerned about. And I really, when I talk to voters, I asked them, what are you concerned about right now? And I think that that was the key. Like, so often, people are really met with messages of, this is what you should do. And it’s crucial to take the time to listen to, okay, what issues are these people actually facing? And my goal was to understand what they were facing. And then, you know, have a discussion of like, okay, you’re really concerned about our doctor shortage here in Nova Scotia, about not having access to good health care? Well, you know, how does that connect to larger action on climate change and like, transforming our system? How can we, you know, transform our healthcare system so that, like, we’re focused on not just always patching up these holes, but really having preventative health care, that really suits the needs of everyone and is, you know, really focused on anti-oppression and anti-racism. So I think being able to validate people’s concerns and say, look, I’m trying to do something about this, my party is trying to do something about this. And we hear you and, you know, we, we we are concerned too, was huge! And, like the platform was very radical for a political platform. The Green Party in Nova Scotia is very small. So we we didn’t elect anyone … it’s a very small party. But I think that gave us the chance to say things that other political parties might not have said. And so really, my goal with that election was to push the discussion. Because to really push it towards this meaningful transformative change, that politicians are often scared to do, because, you know, they run on a four-year election cycle, they’re just concerned with keeping their power. And, and not all of them, of course, but especially with the political system we have. And so my goal was to disrupt it a little bit to be like, you know, we can be doing better. This is where we can go, and this is where we need to go. And so I think I would definitely do it again. I’ve got to say, running for office was very positive, being involved in a political party was a little less positive. And that way, I wanted to just be clear that that was in the past, because I’m currently working as a public servant. So I’m not really supposed to be partisan. But as I said, this is all past work. I found it really helpful actually, you asked something earlier what helps [combat climate anxiety]? Well, I found it actually really helpful. Because more people than I thought are concerned about climate change, people were very, for the most part, very supportive of a young person running. They were very welcoming. They were very appreciative that I listened to their concerns, and that we’re trying to do something about it. And I really felt that I, you know, had a role to play and, you know, making those issues and concerns heard. And so I would definitely run again!  I think I might prefer to run on more of a local level. But that’s … who knows in the future. But I think having the chance to really try to do politics differently was my goal. Because I always, I mean, I’ve always, even as a kid, I knew oh, people hate politicians. That’s just the sentiment. And I think we need to get away from that. Because ultimately, politicians, your elected officials, they’re supposed to be representing you. You know, they’re supposed to listen, they’re supposed to really do what’s right for the constituents, for the planet, for society. And it’s not, it should not be about power. It should not be about money. It should not yeah, it should not be about you know, just winning the election. It should be about truly doing what is right for the people living in your riding and your province, you know, whatever level of government. So I think there’s a lot that can be done. Even if you don’t win, you can really push the conversation. You can help people feel like they’re being heard. And it also gives you a bit of a platform as a candidate, you know, I had the chance to speak to news outlets, I had the chance to share what I was hearing from constituents. What our, you know, our dream vision for Nova Scotia was as a party and that was that was really meaningful. And yeah, so it was, it was definitely, it was one of the hardest months of my life for sure. It was exhausting to run a campaign. It’s very emotionally, like I’m an introvert. I’m definitely an introvert. But I did it. And it was, it was very, it was very helpful of an experience. But I think too, there’s a lot of negative sides of politics, which I think I did not experience so much in my campaign. But I think at the root of why I ran was to build, to really connect with people. And I think that that is how campaigns should be. Yeah, so I definitely think in the future, I will probably run again, at some point!

“Almost every single person that participated in my research said that it had been almost the only time they’d ever had the chance to think about their [climate] grief, to really identify it, and talk about it, although it was coming up for them on a daily basis, you know, not feeling good about the world, not having a lot of coping mechanisms, and, and having burnout, having all these challenges. But there hasn’t been a space for people to really connect with others about this.”

Catherine Zita Dias: Yeah, no, that’s, that sounds great. I really liked how you put it as a way to a campaign as a way to get to know your community and what they want. And to kind of start that conversation whether or not you win. I’ve never heard it like that. And I think that’s a really great way to think about it. Yeah, I would love if you ran again, and seems like you have great ideas! I mean, I’m not from Nova Scotia. I don’t think I can vote for Nova Scotia. But I think I think it sounds great. So we’re nearing like the end. Now. Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share or anything else you’d like Bluedot readers to know?

Lily Barraclough: Yeah, sure. Um, one of the projects I’ve been involved in kind of coming out of my research a little bit, is with an organization called One Resilient Earth. And we’ll be putting on a youth climate learning journey for resilience and regeneration this Fall, which is open to youth across the world. And it really delves, it is all virtual, but it really delves into a lot of the depths of understanding the climate crisis, understanding yourself and your place in the climate crisis. And then, also, trying to have those discussions of like, you know, this is hard work. This is challenging, it’s emotionally exhausting. How do we do this work? And also, you know, build ourselves up and really, like, build community and connect to the land and keep going. And so I definitely like it’s, you can find it online, I can send that link to you afterwards. And yeah, it’s, it’s definitely a really great opportunity for getting people to, to really have the chance to take some time to think really deeply about these topics. And we have some really, really phenomenal speakers around the world who are going to be a part of it.

Catherine Zita Dias: Amazing! Yeah, that’s amazing! So yes, thank you so much for having this discussion with me and kind of speaking on how to manage, you know, eco-anxiety, your own personal experience with that, your experiences with running for office, all that stuff, I’m sure it’s great for our listeners to hear. For those who are listening right now and are interested, we also have a ton of resources and tips on our website and in our magazines for how you can take actions in small ways to kind of manage that eco-anxiety without getting too overwhelmed. As well as your space, you know, take some time away as well. Creating some distance is important. So yeah, I had such a great time chatting with you! I’ll be linking the article to the Canada’s National Observer article that you’re featured in and as well as the [One Resilient Earth] event that you mentioned that will be the virtual event in Fall. But I think that’s it for today. Thank you again, so much for your time!

Lily Barraclough: Thank you for having me!

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Catherine Zita Dias
Catherine Zita Dias
Catherine Zita Dias is an undergraduate student at the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) where she studies Media Production. She is the Co-Editor-In-Chief of The Continuist at TMU and a social media creator for Webseries Canada. Catherine envisions a career in film and/or publication industries after graduation.
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