U of M must confront reality and lead the way on climate change

Administration needs to declare a climate emergency

In my view, the most fundamental difficulty facing climate activists over the past decades is that taking action against global warming is too often framed as a short-term pain, long-term gain trade-off.

I once thought that — as the scientific community continued to reach a stronger and stronger consensus as to the imminence of our climate crisis, as the effects became more tangible in our daily lives and as the pain requisite of the status quo became more inevitable — this trade-off would eventually tilt in our favour. But looking at our governments and institutions in Canada and around the world, it is clear I was wrong.

Perhaps the issue is that, as humans, we simply see ourselves as too infallible to confront the reality of the exact personality flaw that got us into this mess in the first place. Perhaps we are just unable to confront any form of collective action problem. Or perhaps the fear of incurring short-term discomfort to preserve our salvation is just too great, and exacerbated tenfold when we consider that our institutions of authority are often powered by old white men with less to lose in the long term than most.

It is clear that among segments of the population — often youth and Indigenous people — this trade-off is more courageously being confronted.

Hundreds of such youth braved one of the most fittingly chaotic weather days of the past year to stage a “die-in” at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to bring attention to the need for climate action. Millions will join across the city, country and the world this week in a global climate strike, culminating Friday.

This is incredibly uplifting and powerful work. But often I fear that before this generation of climate-conscious activists become policy makers and legislators, we may be too far gone to make a difference.

Even as climate change ranks consistently as the most important issue during election periods among youth, it was scarcely discussed by either major party in the last provincial election, the United States’s Democratic National Committee refuses to even have a climate debate and we are in year 11 of the Liberal party pushing a modest carbon tax program — one that has been contradicted by simultaneous pipeline purchases and is currently being blocked by several provinces.

While governments across the world are signing on to reduce emissions targets by decades, it seems few if any are implementing the short-term policy changes required to actually reach them. It is clear we need to find a new way to reach this set of power-brokers if we are to have any hope.

The good news is that the tide on this seems to be changing. The “Green New Deal,” (GND) popularized by American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and supported by thousands of activists has framed the climate debate in a new, more hopeful manner. It shows us that taking action to save our planet does not have to result in economic hardship for the working class.

The GND, and similar proposals worldwide, focus instead on the opportunities climate action could provide. This includes an economic windfall for adopting countries and businesses in renewable energy production and innovation, training opportunities for displaced fossil fuel employees and opportunities for workers and corporations alike on massive green infrastructure investments.

The governments, corporations and institutions which make the largest and swiftest moves toward substantial climate action will put themselves in a remarkably enviable position by being the first movers in a necessarily inevitable shift toward a greener economy.

This is their opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a deal of a lifetime — and it’s literally the last chance for us.

At a smaller scale this logic applies as well to universities, including of course the University of Manitoba. The UMSU board of directors was given notice on Sept. 12 of a motion I presented on behalf of our sustainability working group asking UMSU to declare a climate emergency and demand the university follow suit. It also calls on the administration to commit itself to a 50 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050, while working immediately to lay out a definitive step-by-step plan on how it will meet these targets.

As UMSU works with student activists to push the administration towards accepting this proposal over the next year, the last thing I want to hear about from them is whether other U15 universities are committed to the same targets. For a university that often languishes from the middle to the bottom of the U15 ranks on many research initiatives, the opportunity to be among the first major movers in this area should be a welcomed one.

Students desperately need this university to move in a bold direction that will not only counteract carbon emissions on its campuses, but will significantly invest in environmental education opportunities, renewable infrastructure and energy models and be at the forefront of research on environmental impacts both on and off campus.

Students across the world are leading the way toward climate justice, and they should expect the same from our education and research institutions.

It’s time for the University of Manitoba to lead these institutions and recognize this moment as not just a climate emergency, but a climate opportunity.