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.


The University of Alberta’s Commitments to Dismantling Racism

photo by Hoshang Hasmimi. Source:

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.
photo by Amani Al-mehsenm March 3, 2020 SOURCE: Tahdisto,
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.


The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Deepening Climate Crisis

The Covid-19 virus is an emergency. What can the Canadian climate justice movement learn from the ways in which our governments are responding to it?
In response to the economic contraction triggered by the covid-19 pandemic, the EI fund was boosted last week (among other measures). Today (March 13), a $10 billion credit facility was announced by the federal government to hold over Canadian businesses affected by lost sales. (This amount could be doubled.) The Bank of Canada is cutting its lending rate again and creating a new lending facility for businesses in trouble. The domestic stability buffer for Canadian banks is being lowered to 1 per cent, freeing $300 billion in additional lending capacity by the banks. A stabilization program is in the works for Alberta (and Saskatchewan?). Today’s announcements constitute, apparently, the second stage of a longer series of steps to be taken to respond to the pandemic.
Economist Jim Stafford points out (on CBC Radio’s emergency coverage of the emergency measures, this afternoon) that the $10 billion announced by Minister Morneau compares to the $200 billion that was made available by the Harper Govt to help businesses weather the 2008 financial crisis. Stafford joined calls from the labour movement for the immediate increase and extension of workers’ benefits.
Political ecologists and ecological economists, drawing on climate science and trends in fossil fuel extraction, have been saying for almost two decades that we could either plan economic degrowth or have it imposed upon us by the effects of global warming. Calls for “Green New Deals,” “Just Transition,” or “rapid transition to a post-carbon economy” (all different labels for the same thing) have been dismissed as unrealistic. They couldn’t be financed, it was said. “Fiscally responsible” governments are all about eliminating deficits and small government, neoliberals continue to say.  Incremental market adjustments would do the trick, claimed the liberals.  Yet, with a few cabinet meetings it can be decided that we are in the throes of a national emergency and credit can be generated for low-cost lending to businesses. Laid-off workers can be provided with more income. Purported neoliberals are now calling for “fiscal stimulus” for their oil-price-depressed local economies.
When a government can create, within days, financing on the scale of $200 billion to maintain the status quo, but cannot do the same to help build a new, more resilient and egalitarian economy–one that provides greater income stability for all–we must conclude that the problem is not the means, but the will, to act on the evidence of climate science.
As for the employment/income crisis in Alberta, I hope, personally, that the federal government will not give the UCP government control over a stabilisation fund that it would very likely use to further subsidize the fossil fuel corporations operating in the province.  Any such fund should be administered by an independent agency that includes experts on the impacts of climate science as well as civil society representatives in its governance body, and that has a green transition mandate.
At this juncture the Liberals have an opportunity to turn a crisis into solutions.  They should not miss another opportunity to explain to Canadians that the capitalist-growth-driven economy is driving us right past the point of no-return (return, that is, to a global warming threshold below 2 degrees). The existing economy is hurtling us toward a world with 200 million climate refugees by mid-century, and we are already struggling to resettle 6 million refugees from the Middle East and African conflicts.
The covid-19 virus is a small test-run for what is coming, if we don’t make radical changes now. Remember that, in addition to climate science’s predictions of collapses in food production and marine environments (the latter already well advanced), there is a whole field of research related to the effects of global warming on disease vectors and other determinants of pubic health. We can mobilize the public financing now for a planned transition, or, we can react spasmodically to crisis after crisis in the years ahead, at the cost of immense suffering and—very likely—growing political authoritarianism.
Laurie Adkin, Professor of Political Science, University of Alberta, March 13, 2020
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We can save Alberta’s scenic high country

by Kevin van Tighem, naturalist and writer, resident of southwest Alberta

In a confidential meeting with the Calgary Chamber of Commerce during the last Alberta provincial election campaign, Jason Kenney described his strategy for implementing a far-right exploitation agenda. He said the plan was to overwhelm any opposition by bringing in massive policy changes as fast as possible. And that is exactly what he has done.
The power of that approach is that it both confuses people and makes them feel overwhelmed and helpless. So they retreat into despair, and those who profit from extracting value from the public purse, the work of others and the environment win. But it’s a tactic based on overwhelming our senses, not on real power. In a democracy like ours, real power is distributed across many levels of government and many groups of people. And we can still tap into it to defend our province from those who would suck it dry and then discard it.
The coal mining assault on the Eastern Slopes is a case in point. We are meant to feel that there is nothing we can do to stop strip mines from opening, one after another, from Crowsnest Pass to Grande Cache, in the scenic headwaters of our prairie rivers. We’re supposed to go down without a fight as the habitats of native trout and the homes of bighorn sheep, alpine forget-me-nots and golden eagles get reduced to rubble in order to send coal to be burnt in foreign steel mills. But we have the power to keep our mountains free of coal strip-mines.
I and others have been encouraging concerned Albertans to write to the Premier and our so-called Minister of Environment and Parks with their objections. That’s still a good idea, because it does ensure that they know that their voters actually care about our home place enough to protest bad policy. But we need to be realistic: this is a government with a far-right ideology. They truly believe in what they are doing. We are not going to convince them to change course.
On the other hand, they have done almost everything they can to alienate the federal government and to let the ruling Liberals know that there’s little hope of winning seats in Alberta. Ironically, this could help Albertans who care deeply about our Eastern Slopes to persuade Ottawa to stand on guard for us and the places we love.
Provincial and federal governments alike have a duty, under our Constitution, to consult with First Nations whose rights are affected by major changes to land use policy. When Alberta arbitrarily revoked its Coal Policy — one that was originally put in place by Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government after extensive consultation — they consulted only with the coal industry. They are in breach of their Constitutional duty to respectfully consult Indigenous people. The federal government has a direct interest in that.
Almost all the current coal mining proposals affect the breeding habitat of species protected by law under the federal Species At Risk Act. These include Westslope Cutthroat Trout, Limber and Whitebark Pines, and Grizzly Bear. The province has submitted draft recovery plans for cutthroat trout and grizzly that are clearly substandard and they expect the federal government to rubber stamp those plans — even while instituting a policy that is intended to facilitate strip-mining of critical habitats. The federal government has a duty to protect those species.
The Government of Canada and Alberta are subject to international agreements to reduce greenhouse gases. This is an urgent priority in the face of our ongoing climate crisis. Burning coal releases stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Coal mined in Alberta might be burned in China, Japan or India, but there is only one atmosphere: we don’t get to play Pontius Pilate on this. The federal government has a duty to consider the impact of major new initiatives on our ability to meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.
The Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains provide more than 80% of all the river water in the arable regions of prairie Canada. Water security is a critical strategic issue for this country, given the importance of irrigation agriculture and prairie towns and cities, and the costs of flood-relief and drought-relief programs. Coal strip mining destroys the surface hydrology of headwater basins and releases soluble toxins like selenium into ground and surface water. Existing coal mines in BC and near Hinton have failed to find a way to keep those toxins out of rivers and in fact more than 90% of the threatened west slope cutthroat trout population recently died in the Fording River because of coal mine pollution. Water security is a federal concern.
So the Federal government has jurisdictional responsibilities that are affected both by individual coal mine proposals and by the Alberta government’s decision to open up formerly protected Coal Policy zone 2 lands to new strip mining. The Federal government has both the responsibility and the power to intervene — and no political reason to avoid intervening.
We need to tell them this.
And we need to ask them to impose a solution. The simplest solution? Federal legislation dictating that ANY new coal mine proposals in Canada, including expansion proposals for existing coal mines, will henceforth be subject to a formal review under the federal Impact Assessment Act. With no exceptions.
This would ensure full scrutiny of all environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions, and full consideration of government duty to consult with affected Indigenous communities. It would mean that species at risk don’t get swept under the rug. And it would guarantee all Canadians an open, transparent and accessible process for citizens to intervene against bad decisions.
No less important: it would scare away a lot of investors, because they would be dealing with the kind of investment risks — i.e. full-cost accounting — that the Kenney government is trying to help them avoid. Mining investors prefer to deal with desperate third-world governments than with ones that hold investors fully accountable, because they don’t want to pay to clean up their messes or live with the damage they cause.
We CAN save our Eastern Slopes. This is one fight we can win, but citizens need to convince our federal Cabinet to step up to the plate. If you have visited the places that are now at risk, or even if you just think water security and endangered species matter, it should be pretty clear that this is one fight we have to win.
So here are some key Cabinet Ministers to whom you should send your thoughts and suggestions. Please feel free to borrow from any of the points raised above:
Prime Minister. Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau –
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Hon. Chrystia Freeland –
Environment and Climate Change Minister. Hon. Jonathan Wilkinson –
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister. Hon. Carolyn Bennett –
Finance Minister. Hon. Bill Morneau –
Agriculture and Agri-food Minister. Hon. Marie-Claude Bibeau –
Infrastructure and Communities Minister. Hon. Catherine McKenna –
Minister of Health. Hon. Patty Hajdu –
Minister of Natural Resources. Hon. Seamus O’Regan –
Minister of Indigenous Services. Hon. Marc Miller –
Minister of Canadian Heritage, Hon. Steven Guilbeault –