A Climate Disaster Project participant visits Lytton BC after the town was devastated by wildfires in 2021 

Fires rage, storms blow, floodwaters surge, temperatures climb: as headlines about the latest environmental catastrophes appear with alarming regularity, it’s easy to feel like there’s little the average person can do. But UVic’s Climate Disaster Project is working to make a difference by using eyewitness accounts of climate survivors to create change and build an international community based on hope, trust and empowerment.

Working with partner institutions across Canada and around the world, the Climate Disaster Project (CDP) uses the model of an international teaching newsroom in order to train students in trauma-informed journalism techniques to collect, compile and share survivor stories.

“Speaking with people who have been affected by disasters — and hearing how they were able to move through that and counteract it — showed me just how much resistance is already happening on an individual and community level,” says fourth-year Department of Writing student and CDP participant Tosh Sherkat. “It gives me a lot of hope to realize that we have the resistance within us to come together and help each other to survive.”

CDP participants Tosh Sherkat (left) and Aldyn Chwelos

Having an impact

Funded by an initial $1.875 million donor investment and led by Sean Holman, a veteran journalist and the Department of Writing’s Wayne Crookes Professor of Environmental and Climate Journalism, the project has already had a significant impact since launching in September 2021.

In the past academic year alone, 136 students were enrolled in CDP-related classes in nine different institutions (including UVic, First Nations University, Mount Royal University and Toronto Metropolitan University), learning about the human impacts of climate change, working to share those experiences with the news media, and investigating common problems and solutions identified by climate disaster survivors. New partnerships have recently been secured that will soon see the project expanded to Brazil, Hong Kong, Norway, Nepal, Pakistan, and South Africa and the United States.

To date, Holman and his CDP team of students and recent grads have produced more than 120 stories in collaboration with disaster survivors worldwide, as noted in this overview of the Climate Disaster Project that ran in The Tyee.  

As well as sharing survivor stories through local and national media partnerships with the likes of The Tyee, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), the Fraser Valley Current and both Asparagus and Megaphone magazines, CDP students also launched a verbatim theatre production, participated in Bournemouth University’s Global Media Education Summit, and collected stories as part of the Royal BC Museum’s Climate Hope exhibit.

“So often we talk about climate change as this existential thing we have to stop, that we have to prevent . . . but we’ve been saying that for decades and we’re in a worse position than ever,” says Writing student Aldyn Chwelos, a senior research associate and editor with the CDP.  “I feel so much less climate anxiety now because I’m actually working on this. Whether it makes a difference or not remains to be seen, but at least I’m doing something — talking to people, exploring solutions, figuring out how to get through this together — which feels different than just hoping it will all stop.”

Holman & Sherkat taking the survivor story of Suzanne Kilroy/Huculak

Making a change 

Both Chwelos and Sherkat were interviewed on the June 11 edition of What On Earth, CBC Radio’s award-winning national climate-solutions show (skip ahead to the 34:00 mark). 

“I think one of the biggest things I learned was to be bold with my empathy,” Chwelos told What On Earth host Laura Lynch in the interview. “This course is giving students the power to do that.”   

Sherkat told Lynch that the experience has had a profound affect on him. “It’s changed the way I feel about the future,” he says. “It’s renewed a sense of commitment in me to develop a sense of community strength and resilience in a meaningful way.”

A former competitive climber with Canada’s national youth team, Sherkat resigned after an experience protesting at Vancouver Island’s Fairy Creek old-growth logging blockade left him questioning the climate ethics of the international climbing world.

“It was a pretty difficult decision for me,” he admits, listing reasons including international travel requirements and the climbing community’s “rhetoric of being environmental stewards” compared to the actual toll outdoor rock climbing has on the environment. “Representing Canada and high-performance sports in general requires an attitude that’s hard to reconcile with climate-change action movements.”

Sherkat then enrolled in one of Holman’s CDP-related UVic classes in the hopes of making a positive difference, rather than having a negative impact. He says he’s still haunted by the experience of taking the testimony of Pacific Northwest wildfire survivor Suzanne Kilroy/Huculak. (“I couldn’t breathe,” she recalls in Megaphone. “I was coughing up blood . . . . There’s flames 100 feet high on one side of the highway and 50 feet high on the other side. We could feel the heat inside the car.”)

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” he says. “She was such a fantastic storyteller and had so much drama from that, but also had so much love and light and hope for the future. When you bear witness to that kind of story, you also feel responsible for holding the love and hope.”

Chwelos at the RBCM’s Climate Hope exhibit

Witnessing a disaster

For their part, Chwelos was originally studying computer science and working in the tech industry when they realized they wanted to be doing something of more value. “I was working for a company that just wanted to make money,” they say. “I started rethinking how I wanted to fill my life and the work I wanted to do.”

Switching gears to an earlier love of writing, Chwelos enrolled in one of Holman’s CDP classes, where the entire class had to introduce themselves by saying how climate change had affected them.

“I’ve had asthma since I was a kid, and normally the summer months are great . . . but over the past few years the increasing wildfire smoke and pollen levels have meant I’m having more trouble breathing. Making that connection for myself was really interesting, realizing that a large portion of my life has been influenced by this problem,” Chwelos recalls. “Day one, it was all about reframing and realizing that climate change has a huge stamp on everything. And the whole point of the project and Sean’s class was to not minimize those experiences—we may not have lost our homes to wildfires or flooding, but we’re all part of the situation and we can see ourselves in the project.”

Chwelos also accompanied Holman to Lytton, where CDP helped create a time capsule to commemorate the 2021 fire that destroyed 90 percent of the small BC town’s buildings in just 20 minutes and made international headlines.

“Going to Lytton brought up a whole range of emotions. We got to go into the townsite, which was terrifying in so many ways,” they recall. “I was in a car with Sean and it was like driving through the belly of the beast: my heart just sunk and we stopped talking as we took it all in. You could see where the fire had gone through, black carcasses of trees, rusted-out vehicles, steps leading to burned-out houses . . . you could still identify lots of items of humanity in all the rubble. There were signs warning us to close our car windows and not turn on the air circulation because there were potentially toxins of asbestos and lead floating around. You really felt for the community and what they’d lost, to see the entire town basically reduced to rubble. It was scary to think that this was probably the first of many towns that will face this.”

Holman with Writing student & CDP participant Sandra Ibrahim

A future of our own making

While both Chwelos and Sherkat are graduating from UVic in June, the work of the Climate Disaster Project will continue as more students in more institutions around the world get involved with the project and collectively contribute to the ever-increasing “memory vault” of survivor stories.

It’s no exaggeration to say that learning about journalism practices, trauma-informed interview techniques, and climate experiences and solutions has changed the way Chwelos sees the world, as they have now had CDP work published in the likes of the Fraser Valley Current and The Tyee, as well as by the International Network of Street Papers.

As Chwelos said to CBC’s Laura Lynch,It’s shown that when we can come together, there is a lot we can do. We do have the power as we move through these disasters . . . to create new ways of living and create new communities — and build and sustain existing ones — that will allow us to live in more equitable ways and be able to survive climate change together.”

For his part, Sherkat is buoyed by the feeling that he is indeed making a difference with the Climate Disaster Project.

“I think most people just feel overwhelmed when it comes to the climate crisis. On top of policy change, we need a revolution in thinking — everything needs to change,” he concludes. “People my age grew up with the spectre of climate change in our futures: it’s impacted me, and I know it’s impacted the people I’ve worked with, my peers. I feel proud about the work I’ve been doing with the project. That’s enough for me.”