At a moment when youth-led climate activism is dominating the media landscape, such advocacy is conspicuously absent on U of T’s campus.
This is especially peculiar in light of the fact that recent campus climate action has demonstrated that student activism has the potential to compel those in power to consider arguments backed by popular student support and cogent, empirically-sourced evidence.
In 2015, UofT350, a climate activism group, embarked on a well-organized and focused campaign. They aimed to convince the university to divest their stocks in fossil fuel companies to limit carbon dioxide emissions. After three years of sustained climate action, the group succeeded in lobbying the Governing Council to establish the Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels.
The Committee found that in accordance with U of T’s stated mission to lead the battle against climate change, the university should financially divest from organizations that flout sustainable resource extraction practices.
U of T President Meric Gertler responded to the report published by the Committee by announcing that he would skirt its findings and abstain from complying with its heavily substantiated recommendations to divest.
Instead, he opted to establish another advisory committee, whose recommendations do not indicate that the university is planning to demonstrate meaningful action at a level appropriate to combating climate change.
It would be reasonable to feel helpless in the face of institutional power that seems determined to permit the devastation of our planet. However, as tuition-paying students of an institution which posits itself as a champion of knowledge and innovation, we cannot allow a setback to discourage our efforts in demanding substantive change.
In the coming academic year, student activists should look to the strengths and obstacles of UofT350’s action, and coordinate a renewed campaign with a specific strategic goal. Such a campaign would hopefully be one that attempts to incorporate groups across campus which also advocate for student interests, such as U of T’s Indigenous communities or our incoming student governments.
Leap UofT has made sporadic attempts at reviving the divestment movement, culminating in a “Divest Fest” this past April. If there is to be a significant response from the university’s administration, it is crucial that actions such as petitions and protest events are coordinated with clear objectives in mind and sustained consistently over the long term.
Campus activists should not be deterred by a perceived failure of the earlier divestment campaign. UofT350 succeeded both in placing the issue on the highest desk in the land and obtaining significant recognition that their demands for divestment were legitimate, and those successes cannot be overlooked.
There are also notable examples of youth-led climate activism across the globe that have gained substantial ground which students might look to for encouragement.
Several major countries in the European Union, including France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, tabled a joint proposal earlier this month to increase the Union’s budget expenditure on fighting climate change from 20 per cent to 25 per cent. The proposal cites as a motivating factor “the recent mobilization of young people” across Europe, referring to the mass student walkouts initiated by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg.
Closer to home, 350.org — UofT350’s parent organization — is currently preparing to roll out its Canadian Green New Deal campaign, which aims to put specific and attainable strategies for sustainable economic development on the radar of politicians running in this year’s federal election. Their campaign will be primarily spearheaded by young people across Canada.
These movements demonstrate that meaningful public policy in the direction of progress is, for the most part, attained through well-organized popular action. The results will rarely be as far forward as one may hope for, but that should only be motivation to reorient, reorganize, and continue to push the envelope further.
Anna Osterberg is a second-year Master of Teaching student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.