Climate Emergency: Time to go “Beyond Ideas”

Frances Hallen
Frances Hallen
Thu, 05/27/2021 - 14:15
A review of The University of Waterloo’s May 2021 Declaration of Climate Emergency 

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the following text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author's employer, the Federation of Students, the University of Waterloo, or other organizations, committees, and/or other groups with which the author is associated. 

We cannot solve a crisis without treating it like a crisis. Running off this, the University of Waterloo’s recent declaration of climate emergency should feel like a step in the right direction towards breaking through outstanding policy inertia and taking aggressive climate action. However, plans for such follow-up have yet to be made clear. This makes our role as students to stay informed and hold university decision-makers accountable for their symbolic statements more crucial than ever. 

The catastrophic consequences of climate change occurring around the world and their acceleration in magnitude and frequency are undeniable; as are their root causes in anthropogenic activities. With a statement of climate emergency being a clear acknowledgement of these scientific understandings, it is a resolute item that gives an institution precedence to undertake ambitious climate goals. This is what spurred a movement throughout 2019 and 2020 of hundreds of communities, municipalities, states, and university institutions across Canada and the world making declarations of climate emergency as a call to action.  

The ethical, social, and climate justice reasons for making such a statement, and subsequently, more aggressive pursuits of carbon neutrality, have long been clear. So why has the University of Waterloo’s own declaration been so delayed, particularly in comparison to other institutions and communities? What does a declaration of “climate emergency” mean to the University of Waterloo? UW has established a strong brand as a research-intensive institution: “a hub of expertise, change leaders, educators of the future, and conveners of multi-stakeholder action and collaboration”3. It is now more than ever that, in addition to the ethical reasons noted above, the economic and prestige related returns on climate research, innovation, and investments have been made undeniable. These appear to be the reasons upon which the University’s “key pillars” for climate action were built, as referenced in its declaration of climate emergency. 

It is encouraging that the accompanying commitments encompass a wide breadth of components that can make up climate action from a university standpoint. They begin with support for climate-related academia; then go on to address other programming, campus operations, investments, and more; while also acknowledging the need for considerations of equity, diversity, inclusion, and Indigenization. The approach is holistic and well supported by scientific, economic, and social justifications.  

However, while encouraging in their existence, the goals still lack direction, specificity, and meaningful short-term targets to get the ball rolling. Furthermore, many of the goals begin with “we will continue to” or “we will reinforce”. This lacks the stronger wording that aligns with accelerated action, as one would think an “emergency” situation would necessitate.  

There are many ways in which the University can build upon its existing goals. For example, through: 

  • Revising Shift: Neutral, the University’s roadmap to carbon neutrality to make interim targets more ambitious with smaller broken-down time intervals. 

  • Establishing more meaningful commitments to incorporating sustainability and climate action into the University's Strategic Plan 

  • Making louder public statements that define what “aligning investments with climate risks and opportunities” entails and how involved parties like students can be a greater part of the conversation. 

  • Creating better promoted avenues for students to learn about the climate-related research that is being enabled at the University and be inspired to become involved. 

  • Providing concrete examples for how the University plans not only to “listen to” but also incorporate traditional indigenous knowledge. 

  • Specifying how sustainability and climate will be integrated into curriculums not only within the Faculty of Environment, but rather in all Faculties to support holistic approaches to problem solving and development of world perspectives. 

  • Establishing greater plans for increased awareness on campus. Well-informed students are invaluable supports for change, but currently climate issues are falling too far under the radar. 

  • Breaking down barriers to student engagement in town halls, open houses and other community forums, and finding less intimidating ways for undergraduates to provide input.  

Too many times we have seen climate emergency declarations make bold entrances, then fade behind other political, economic, or social priorities. Climate change is a very intimidating issue to tackle, hence why we have seen so much policy and action inertia to date. However, I think the University of Waterloo is in an excellent position to prove it will observe otherwise. We can learn from the progress of others and look to leading institutions like UBC for inspiration. With the expertise, ambition, and resources that we have, I am very hopeful we can see change implemented at a scale suited to a “climate emergency”. 

What does this mean for you? I urge all students, faculty, and staff to invest in their own future by staying informed, holding our decision makers accountable, and supporting advocacy initiatives for climate action. Living through a global pandemic might have given us crisis fatigue but let us not allow “climate emergency” to exist as just a tag word. The policies and measures that our representative institutions and governments adopt are critical in determining the trajectory of our lives. It is through our calls for climate justice that have brought UW this far, and it is through those continued calls that we will see it through. 

 

References 

McGrath, M. (2018, December 16). Climate change: Five things we've learnt from COP24. Retrieved from BBC Science: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46582265 

The Univeristy of Waterloo. (n.d.). Beyond Ideas. Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/beyond-ideas/.  

The University of Waterloo. (2021, May). The University of Waterloo declares a Climate Emergency. Retrieved from The University of Waterloo: https://uwaterloo.ca/climate-emergency-declaration/