Mr. Flanagan went to Egypt. The petro-university was still here when he got back.

Laurie Adkin, Professor, Dept. of Political Science

The Folio and The Quad have been doing their jobs as a marketing arm and a platform for statements by the University of Alberta administration, publishing a series of articles on November 9, 10, and 17 about President Flanagan’s trip to the 27th CoP in Egypt.[1]

President Flanagan attended the CoP as a representative of the World Universities Network, an association of 24 universities founded in 2000 that seeks to develop their research collaboration.[2] Flanagan spoke on a panel about “how university networks can advance research on sustainable energy systems and climate change” (November 10).

The November 9 Folio article states that “Flanagan’s goal is to demonstrate how universities are at the centre of many of the technological, policy and societal innovations that are needed to combat climate change, building partnerships across disciplines and with local and global governments, industries and non-profits.” The example provided in the article is the Future Energy Systems Research Initiative (FESRI), described below. It is claimed that the FESRI makes the University of Alberta a “global leader in green energy solutions.”

In these articles, Mr. Flanagan repeatedly draws attention to the FESRI, which received $75 million in funding from the federal government in 2016. He provides the information that the FESRI “involves 121 projects, 143 researchers, and more than 1,000 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows – multidisciplinary work to improve energy processes and reduce environmental impact” (November 10; November 17). He highlights the role of the FESRI in “discovering technologies to produce, store, transport and deliver cleaner, reliable energy sources in ways that drive us to net-zero emissions and help meet Canada’s commitments to combating climate change. From generating cleaner fuels, such as hydrogen to carbon capture and its use and storage, our research activity is occurring across the entire continuum of energy systems” (Ibid.; November 17). Aminah Robinson Fayek, U of A vice-president of research and innovation, “notes the university is home to Canada’s largest energy research cluster” (November 17).

In the November 17 article Flanagan also mentions research on climate change in the Arctic and its effects on Indigenous populations. “The U of A is committed to working closely with Indigenous communities — recognizing they need to lead the energy systems solutions in their communities — as well as engaging Indigenous communities and incorporating traditional knowledge to co-develop solutions to meet their needs.”

While energy system research features most prominently in Flanagan’s comments, the second research area highlighted is the effects of climate change on the health of Indigenous peoples. He also recognizes the importance of Earth science research on climate change, referring to melting Arctic ice. There is no mention of other areas of climate-related research at the University of Alberta. There is one mention of “policy and societal innovations” being “needed to combat climate change” (November 9).

Researchers at the University of Alberta who work on the climate crisis may be heartened to hear the President recognizing that universities “are solutions providers in tackling climate change,” and that the University of Alberta has a “shared responsibility to build a better world for all” (November 17).

But many researchers at the University of Alberta also remember that its “signature areas” decision-makers twice rejected proposals (in 2017 and 2018) to establish an interdisciplinary area of research and teaching focused on ecological sustainability and governance – proposals that had strong backing from academics in the Arts and Science faculties. The University of Alberta’s leadership has yet to make a significant investment in interdisciplinary research on solutions to the climate crisis that are rooted not in engineering and applied sciences, but in the social sciences, humanities, fine arts. Research in the latter fields is concerned with the interests that have obstructed action on climate change, how society-wide, just transitions to post-carbon economies could be conceptualized and implemented, and how to engage citizens in these processes.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have also asked questions about how accurate it is to characterize much of the research going on in FESRI as “green energy solutions.” This is because research has shown that energy R&D at the University of Alberta is related predominantly to fossil fuels. Renewable energy research has been a comparatively small component of what UAlberta researchers work on. Further, while President Flanagan gives carbon capture and storage and hydrogen as examples of the “clean energy” solutions to the climate crisis that the UAlberta is producing, many climate scientists, energy system experts, and economists do not agree that such technologies should be prioritized as solutions for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. As is well known to political economists, both CCS and blue hydrogen have been pushed by the fossil fuel industry as technologies that may insulate oil and gas extraction from government regulations intended to reduce the sector’s GHG emissions.

What FESRI or the President understand by the “sustainable development of fossil fuels” (November 17) is also a mystery, given that climate science has made it crystal clear that fossil fuels must be phased out of use within a very short time–if we are to have chance of preventing the planet’s average temperature from rising to catastrophic levels. Isn’t this, after all, why climate change is a crisis (a term Flanagan carefully avoids using)? Isn’t this what he would have learned if he listened to UAlberta researchers like Dr. Sherilee Harper? She is quoted in the November 9 Folio article as saying that the CoP27 discussions are “literally, undeniably, a discussion of life and death.”

For the FESRI’s products to be evaluated on ecological criteria, researchers require reasonably detailed descriptions of its 121 projects and transparent reporting of the funding allocated to these projects. Otherwise, we have no reason to conclude that the University of Alberta is not continuing its long attachment to the fossil fuel industry—a relationship that has led to its characterization as a petro-university—in lieu of dedicating its resources to “tackling climate change.”

Of course, it is not surprising that the president of the University of Alberta would choose to highlight the institution’s energy research when speaking of its contributions to “sustainability,” excluding research that takes as a starting point the need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels, given the composition of the university’s board of governors or the fossil fixation of Alberta’s government. It would take a different kind of leadership to support a quaecumque vera role for the University of Alberta – one that mobilised all our resources to work with our communities to advance a just transition away from fossil-fuel dependence.

The University’s investments in fossil fuels through its endowment funds and pension plans[3] also underpin scepticism about this institution’s commitment to “tackling climate change,” “working with” and “improving the lives” of Indigenous peoples, or “building a better world for all.” We have had no accounting of the university’s fossil fuel investments/liabilities, nor any indication that these are under review by the Board because they are inconsistent with environmental, social, and governance criteria. Other major universities have recognized the existence of a climate emergency, have undertaken fossil fuel divestment, and are committing to “fossil free research.” So far, no such commitments have been made by leaders of the University of Alberta. For these reasons, it is fair to ask in what ways the university deserves the label of a leader in sustainability.

Many faculty members, located in diverse disciplines, would love to see their institution assume a real leadership role in working with our communities to provide solutions to the climate crisis. They know that their students want this, too. They are encouraged by the president’s recognition that climate change is an “urgent challenge” (November 10) and that meaningful action to combat climate change requires “building partnerships across disciplines” and with other actors (November 9). But these words need to be given meaning by actions. A starting point might be a process involving all campus constituencies in a deliberation about the roles their university can and should play in providing the education and research needed for a just, post-carbon transition—starting with how we can work with Albertans and Indigenous nations, while being cognizant of our global obligations.

[1] The articles include, to date:

November 9, “World at a `tipping point’ in climate change talks, CoP27 delegate says,” by Gillian Rutherford, which featured Professor Sherilee Harper, CRC in Climate Change and Health in the School of Public Health before devoting the second half of the article to President Flanagan’s role at the CoP.

November 10, “From the President’s desk: CoP27—2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference,” by Bill Flanagan.

November 17, “Uniting universities behind common purpose key to tackling global challenges: U of A president,” by Michael Brown.

[2] One of these areas of collaboration is “Responding to Climate Change.” A survey of WUN-sponsored research projects finds one called “Establishing the low carbon energy transition in a changing climate network.” The lead researcher on this project is from the USA, and the UAlberta is not among the four participating universities. There are, however, eight other projects related to climate change in which UAlberta academics are participants.

[3] One of the managers of the PSPP and UAPP is AIMCo, which has extensive holdings in the fossil fuel industry and is the major stakeholder in the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline which is being built through Wet’suwet’en territory despite determined opposition by hereditary chiefs.

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