I was honoured to co-write this op-ed on universities, youth and climate change with Grace Nosek of the UBC Climate Hub. The original appeared on the Times Higher Education website on April 26, 2021.
Younger generations have been deeply impacted by the intersecting crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and systemic racism, yet their resolve to be agents of change on these issues remains steady. The commitment of young people to taking action was on full display during last week’s Earth Day events and was acknowledged by President Biden in his opening remarks at the World Leaders Summit. The energy youth have shown in putting climate change on the political agenda and global protests in support of social justice this past year remind us that this generation has a vision for a post-pandemic world that is more sustainable and equitable for everyone. Now is a pivotal moment for institutions of higher education to empower our students to lead us there.
At the University of British Columbia, a groundswell of student climate activism in recent years prompted us to join organizations around the world in declaring a global climate emergency and committing to full divestment of investments from the fossil fuel industry. As part of the declaration, a task force of students, together with faculty and staff members, consulted widely with our university community and released a report this winter with a bold vision for our climate emergency response. The recommendations in the report build on UBC’s recognized leadership on sustainability and climate action. The Times Higher Education University Impact Rating recently recognized our work in this area, with UBC consistently ranking among the top universities for taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
However, more urgent progress is now needed, and we are mobilizing our institutional education, research and innovation capacity in continuing pursuit of climate solutions.
Moving swiftly ahead with the report’s strategic priorities is another big step in UBC’s journey to further advance global shift toward a just and sustainable future—inspired by the advocacy of students and other youth, both on our campuses and worldwide. To bring our stakeholders together to move this initiative forward, we’re employing the following practices.
Empowering students as change agents. The climate crisis is a top issue for UBC students, and many of those students report they’re experiencing profound anxiety about their futures. Thus, by giving students a real seat at the table to help shape decisions around climate action, the university is tackling, in fact, two crises: climate change and students’ mental health. Social science shows that action and agency are vital antidotes to anxiety.
We’ve done this in part by funding the UBC Climate Hub, a distinctive, student-led initiative that unites and empowers students to take systemic action on climate justice. The Climate Hub functions within a unit of the university, employing two full-time staff as well as other student staff members who work to coordinate the advocacy efforts of the university’s student body. The Climate Hub is not a traditional student group that operates on its own. It is embedded within the university to ensure students have the resources and agency to advance climate justice at UBC and beyond.
Moving beyond campus sustainability. While UBC has long been committed to sustainability in our teaching, research and operations, the campus community began calling for the university to take bolder action. Our climate emergency response represents a shift toward working to significantly transform the economic, social and political systems needed to address the existential threat posed by climate change.
To that end, we are joining forces with other colleges and universities across the globe in committing to collective action to address climate change. For instance, UBC leads the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), a collective of 22 leading North American research universities working together to help local communities achieve their climate goals and accelerate the transition to a just, low-carbon future.
Over the past two years, UC3 has worked to bridge the gap between the latest academic research on climate and on-the-ground actions that communities and institutions can take to advance sustainability at home. Coalition members have now hosted 23 cross-sector climate action forums, bringing together thousands of university leaders, elected officials, policy makers, philanthropists and advocates to explore solutions like net-zero housing and waste-derived biofuels. At the UC3 Summit in Vancouver, B.C., in July 2019, the coalition adopted the Research for Policy Platform, a framework to guide ongoing efforts to engage higher education leaders on sustainability and generate research-tested solutions that can be scaled up.
Embedding climate justice into action plans. Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities bear the harmful impacts of fossil fuel extraction and climate destruction while being least responsible for the global acceleration of the climate crisis. They are also often on the front lines of confronting that crisis.
The UBC community spoke strongly on these issues and recommended actions that recognize the need to engage more with underrepresented and marginalized communities. As we respond to the climate emergency, we will continue to uphold the voices of such people and their communities, who can provide distinctive and valuable insights about the gaps and failures of our current systems.
In this effort, UBC has convened an Indigenous community advisory committee to ensure that Indigenous peoples and perspectives shape the development and implementation of UBC’s climate emergency response. UBC researchers are working with government and community partners to embed Indigenous perspectives into climate policies, such as providing input into the development of a long-term plan for the city of Vancouver. Additionally, the Climate Hub has undertaken myriad projects to uphold underrepresented communities, including a year-long event series on climate change, race and intersectionality; a Climate Creatives workshop series centering IBPOC creators leading workshops on how to effectively engage the public on climate justice; and a toolbox to help students and community members grapple with the complex emotions evoked by climate change.
These three practices will help us to amplify and harness the passion of student activists, as well as to mobilize our other diverse constituencies—faculty, staff, alumni and community partners—in an effort to drive crucial change locally and globally.
The climate crisis is urgent, and together, we in higher education must directly face the coming challenges. At this pivotal moment, university leaders everywhere have an opportunity to make decisions and take actions that will reverberate beyond our own borders and lifetimes.
With that in mind, we call on those leaders across North America to work collaboratively with their students to find solutions that will protect our communities and mitigate climate change. Let’s not delay action any longer. We owe it to our students and our children to give them agency in and hope for creating a better future.
Santa J. Ono
Header photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing