On Dec 5, 2019, UBC declared a climate emergency in response to calls from the community, articulated in an open letter signed by more than 1,600 people and more than 70 groups and demonstrated by the attendance of about 5,000 people at the student-organized UBC Climate Strike.
In declaring a climate emergency, UBC recognized the scale and severity of the global climate crisis and the university’s responsibility to take urgent action. The declaration was intended to mark the beginning of a new approach to the climate crisis, committing to a process that would align UBC’s operations with 1.5-degree-Celsius climate targets and infuse climate justice across all aspects of the university.
One year later, the question remains: will UBC stay true to its declaration?
In September, the Climate Emergency Task Force — which was established by the president’s office in February — came up with 24 recommendations to the administration for enacting the declaration. The recommendations were based on input from a community engagement process, facilitated primarily by the UBC Climate Hub, which engaged nearly 4,000 students, staff and faculty across both campuses. The recommendations are currently under review by an Indigenous committee — a critical step in the process — and will be presented to the Board in February 2021. The preliminary 2021/22 budget will also be presented at that meeting. The February Board meeting is a pivotal moment for UBC to demonstrate whether it is taking the climate emergency seriously.
While UBC calls itself a climate leader, there is so much more that needs to be done to meet the challenge set out in the declaration. Just because UBC may be leading compared to other similar institutions does not mean UBC is taking the necessary action that this crisis demands.
If UBC sincerely wants to lead, there are countless opportunities beyond the scope of UBC’s current sustainability efforts that would truly raise the bar. One of the key opportunities identified in the community consultation is for UBC to lead the way in creating a culture of civic engagement that supports students, staff and faculty in speaking out for climate justice and engaging in political advocacy. For example, UBC could create an activist lab (like the Public Health Activist lab at Boston University) and fund activist scholarships so students can devote time to such projects without having to worry about earning income to pay for their education.
Likewise, UBC could encourage and support professors to engage in academic activism by adjusting merit, promotion and tenure processes to value community-engaged scholarship (i.e. reducing the emphasis on publishing papers), creating awards that reward this type of work and hiring leading thinkers and activists, even if they do not have the typical credentials. UBC would not be where it is now with respect to climate action without the persistence and dedication of community activists. So if UBC wants to be a climate leader, it needs to invest in building activists within its community.
Another priority that came through in the consultation is for UBC to leverage its influence as an academic authority to push for change beyond its institutional boundaries and advocate for just climate action in line with 1.5 degrees Celsius at all levels of government.
The university could support nationwide demands for a just recovery, join international efforts to create a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty and show solidarity with the many Indigenous nations facing development on their territories without their consent. UBC could join the Finance Climate Challenge and call on banks and other universities to follow its lead in committing to divest from fossil fuels. It could expand their its divestment commitment to include other extractive companies that are violating Indigenous rights, end donor relationships with these companies and reinvest endowment funds into climate solutions that advance racial and economic justice. The university has a powerful platform to influence public opinion, reach policymakers and shape the political debate.
These ideas just scratch the surface of what UBC needs to do to live up to its declaration. With a year already having passed, UBC has a responsibility to answer to the community at the February Board meeting with concrete plans for meeting the full set of recommendations within a timeline that matches the urgency of the crisis at hand. UBC needs to allocate funding and resources to each of the recommendations and dedicate appropriate staff to carry them out, including support for embedding equity and accessibility into implementation.
The clock is ticking as the window for action shrinks. The 2018 IPCC report gave the world just over 11 years to reduce emissions by 45 per cent and transform our economy in the process in order to avoid the total destabilization of the climate. We’ve already used two of those years and emissions are still rising. If the global community is to meet this existential target, the bulk of action has to happen now, not at the end of the decade. UBC needs to make the most out of every single year in accelerating its climate response.
The changed conditions due to COVID-19 are no excuse for inaction. UBC’s deficit is more than $100 million less than initially projected, and the university is continuing to make investments in strategic priorities. The priority for the 2020/21 budget was to “support the long-term health and wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff above all other considerations.” Preventing climate breakdown is necessary for this long-term health and wellbeing. In a time of intense wealth inequality and economic precarity, declining mental health and an uncertain future, we need investments more than ever in solutions that simultaneously address environmental, racial and economic injustice, build community and empower people to take action.
When President Santa Ono announced the declaration last year, he remarked: “I hope [UBC’s students, faculty and staff members] continue to hold us up to scrutiny and let us know when we fail to live up to expectations.” A year has passed. Let us heed the president’s directive and hold the university to the standard this emergency demands.
Michelle Marcus is an Environmental Sciences student, Former Climate Emergency Task Force Co-Chair and Climate Justice UBC divestment organizer.