University Leaders Challenged to Commit to Climate Goals
3,500 Faculty, Staff, and Students Petition Canadian Universities to Sign Global Climate Letter
EDMONTON, MARCH 10, 2021 – Frustrated by the gulf between expert research on climate change and milquetoast institutional responses to the crisis, Canadian university faculty, staff, and students have raised their voices. Over 3,500 individuals from 74 post-secondary institutions have added their names to a petition calling on Canadian University leaders to sign the Global Universities and Colleges Climate Letter, a document sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program and organizations supporting sustainability in higher education. Signatories of the petition include members of academic staff, non-academic staff, undergraduate students, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, research associates, alumni, and emeriti professors. To date, 606 post-secondary institutions around the world have signed the Global Climate Letter, which declares a “Climate Emergency in recognition of the need for a drastic societal shift to combat the growing threat of climate change.” Institutional signatories to this letter also commit to fulfilling three goals, all of which are consistent with the mandate of institutions of higher learning to contribute to the public good: 1. Mobilize more resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation; 2. Commit to going carbon neutral by 2030 or 2050 at the very latest; 3. Increase the delivery of environmental and sustainability education across curriculum, campus, and community outreach programmes. The petition, circulated by the Climate Action Coalition at the University of Alberta (CAUA) and supported by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, has garnered over 3500 signatures to date, including over 1800 continuing faculty members. The thousands of Canadian university faculty, staff and students supporting this petition are sending a clear message to university and college leaders: if our institutions of higher learning are not willing to squarely address the most pressing challenge of our century, they risk losing their legitimacy as leaders of institutions mandated to serve knowledge and the public good. The time to commit to a sustainable future is now. Comments from CAUA members, who note that the University of Alberta is the only university among Canada’s “top five” that has not yet signed the Global Climate Letter: Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta, Dr. Laurie Adkin, underlined the message of the petition: “Universities have important roles to play in helping our societies and governments grapple with the complexity of the climate crisis, and in developing ecologically sustainable ways of living well. University staff, academics, and students want to work with our communities to achieve climate justice--at home and globally--and we need our institutions to prioritize these tasks.” A non-academic staff member and member of the CAUA who wishes to remain anonymous, views the letter as a bare minimum: “Frankly, signing onto the Global Universities and Colleges Climate Letter is the absolute least our institutions should be doing. If we fail to make even the most basic of commitments to our collective future, what message are we sending to the students we teach, and to the communities we serve? If our institutional leaders cannot sign, we must ask ourselves: what – or who – is stopping them?” University of Alberta Professor Emeritus, Dr. David Cooper, says: “As a retired, but long-time Business professor, and a former member of the Board of Governors, I strongly support a serious move to ethical investment for the university's investments and to our pension plans. This is not only a matter of being fiscally responsible (though it is that) but it is also a commitment to moral leadership in the face of climate chaos and the substantial threat to our planet.” Graduate student Rohan Nuttall (Computing Science) says: "Failing to take meaningful action on climate change (e.g., divestment, signing the Global Climate Letter) is not only uninspiring to students, but it is economically foolish. Our administrators should understand the sunk cost fallacy . . . If the U of A wants to create "changemakers" and "future leaders", it should lead by example." As of March 10, 2021, 59 per cent of the signatories come from academic staff, 31 per cent from students, and 10 per cent from the other categories. The largest single group of signatories is from the University of Alberta, which accounts for almost 20 per cent of the signatories. CAUA is sending the petition to the leaders of the universities that are CAUT and Universities Canada members, as well as to Universities Canada. The petition will remain open to new signatories until all of Canada’s universities have signed on to the Global Climate letter. The full list of signatories to the petition, as of March 10, 2021, as well as numbers by institution and occupational category, may be found here.
MEDIA CONTACTS Laurie E. Adkin, Ph.D. Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Alberta Convenor, Climate Action at the University of Alberta (CAUA) firstname.lastname@example.org David J. Cooper, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, School of Business, University of Alberta email@example.com Debra J. Davidson, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology University of Alberta firstname.lastname@example.org
by Laurie Adkin, Professor, Dept. of Political Science
In his Quad post of September 8, 2020, University of Alberta President, Bill Flanagan, wrote: “We condemn all racism, including specifically anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism, and see education as a key vehicle for change in the world.” This statement generates hope that university administrators will grasp the importance of mobilizing the institution’s resources to advance a socially just, green transition in Alberta and Canada. That they will commit our institution to the actions embodied in the declaration of climate emergency issued by international associations of higher education. That they will recognize the moral imperative to divest university endowment funds from fossil fuels and reinvest in sustainable and ethical alternatives.
Why? Because investment in fossil fuel extraction, upgrading, and transportation—from the industry-driven R&D carried out in universities to the tax credits and buy-outs on the part of governments—is a form of environmental racism.
Fossil fuel combustion accounts for more than three-quarters of the global greenhouse gases that are driving climate destabilization, and the front-line victims of this crisis are people in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Middle East, low-lying island nations, and Indigenous peoples on all continents. The populations most vulnerable to devastating floods, fires, storms, crop failures, and environmentally linked diseases are poor, and, everywhere, this disproportionately includes racialized people. Failing to act where we can to reduce fossil fuel consumption says a lot about how we value the lives of the people most harmed by climate change. Fossil capitalism is deeply racist—at every level and at every point in its supply chains and net of environmental impacts.
The university’s entanglements in relations of racism and exclusion do not stop at the boundaries of the campus. What we do – or fail to do—in deciding on the priorities for research and teaching and for the investment of university endowment and pension funds has consequences for people we may never know and generations yet to be born.
Yes, we are only one institution, and we are struggling to protect our core mission of serving the public good in the context of massive defunding by the UCP government. Understood. But in the process of the re-envisioning and radical restructuring of the university, let us seize the opportunity to examine how our commitments currently contribute to environmental racism in our own province and globally. Let us talk seriously about how we can practise what we preach not only regarding employment practices, but also regarding the knowledge we produce and the funds we invest. What interests are these serving? How could education, research, and university investments be better used to advance social equality and ecological sustainability and to dismantle racist relationships?
Laurie Adkin is the author of Knowledge for an Ecologically Sustainable Future? Innovation Policy and Alberta Universities, published June 2020 by the Parkland Institute and the Corporate Mapping Project.