Matthew Hoffman in his office. KATHRYN MANNIE/THE VARSITY

Starting his university career as a student of environmental engineering, Matthew Hoffmann found that while he was designing systems to clean up pollution, his attention was diverting to the society that created the pollution. Flash forward 20 years, and he is now Professor Matthew Hoffmann — not a professor of engineering, but of political science.

Alongside his teaching duties at the St. George and Scarborough campuses, Hoffmann is the co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab (EGL), served on President Meric Gertler’s Advisory Committee on Divestment, and is an overall expert on global environmental governance.

The Varsity sat down with Professor Hoffmann to talk about his climate advocacy at U of T, his views on the climate crisis, and the work being done at the EGL.

The President’s Advisory Committee on Divestment

“Disappointed” is how Hoffmann described the result of his work on the President’s Advisory Committee (PAC) on Divestment. Sparked by a 2014 petition calling on the university to divest from fossil fuel industries, the PAC was charged with reflecting on U of T’s role in addressing the climate crisis.

Speaking on his experiences in the run-up to the PAC’s final report, Hoffmann said that members “really dove deeply into divestment and thought a lot about how we could reconcile what some of the differing interests [were].”

Ultimately the PAC recommended that U of T divest from fossil fuel companies that “blatantly disregard the international effort to limit the rise in average global temperatures to not more than one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages by 2050.”

This recommendation, Hoffmann described, was not “a rejection of divestment, nor was it a wholesale acceptance of the petition. It laid out some pretty strong principles about when divestment should be pursued.”

“Divestment is not going to stave off climate change by itself”

In the end, Gertler decided to reject the committee’s recommendations and instead pursue a case-by-case approach to evaluating fossil fuel investments in accordance with environmental, social, and governance factors. While Hoffmann believes that it was an overall good move and that the university has been moving in the right direction since its rejection of divestment, he maintains that U of T could have and should have gone further with its climate policy ambitions.

“Divestment is not going to stave off climate change by itself, but divestment is one of those tools that we can start to use to change… and one of the things we have to change is how capital is allocated in our society.”

Do individuals matter?

Hoffmann makes an effort not to focus on how individual people should be acting in response to the climate crisis. In his view, the burden of solving climate change is all too often unjustly put on the shoulders of individuals.

While Hoffmann conceded that our current fossil fuel emissions “come from the everyday activities of millions and billions of people,” what many might not understand is that “the choices that people make are not free.”

“You don’t get to choose to not live in a fossil fuel-constrained world. You don’t get to choose to live in a world where automobile transportation is the dominant mode of transportation to get to work, to get to school, to do anything.”

So, if not individuals, then who is to blame for our current situation? In Hoffmann’s view, the corporate structures around us, perpetuated by the actions of governments and businesses, are ultimately responsible. Those actions can be as obvious as extracting fossil fuels or funding the companies that do, but they can also be much more inconspicuous. For example, Hoffmann believes that the politics of road and city design are just as important to the climate as decisions around pipeline construction.

In the face of governmental and corporate influence in the environment, it may be easy to feel powerless as an individual. However, collective action might be the key to substantive change.

“It can’t just be individual changes… you have to make them visual and you have to make them social. So don’t just change your light bulbs, don’t just fly less, don’t just drive an electric vehicle… if it’s not affecting how other people think, then it’s a very small change.”

Environmental Governance Lab

The EGL is a research hub run out of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. It is supervised by Hoffmann and his colleagues Professor Steven Bernstein and Associate Professor Teresa Kramarz.

Hoffmann described the EGL as not only a place of research but also a place of community and public outreach. The lab runs seminars for the students and faculty of the U of T community, as well as public events to communicate climate research to a broader audience. 

One example of the interesting research coming out of the EGL is its large-scale decarbonization project. This project studies the political processes and outcomes of decarbonizing cities and communities. 

Hoffmann explained that sometimes, in an attempt to decarbonize, a city might switch to burning natural gas, which emits far less carbon. In doing so, the city has an overall improved emissions output — but, in reality, he argued that “[they] are further reinforcing fossil energy extraction and fossil energy systems and [they’ve] done that at the same time where [they] have said [they’re] improving.”

This initial drop in emissions and subsequent plateau can decrease the motivation to take further steps, in what Hoffmann called the ‘improvement zone,’ in which communities can easily become stuck. 

While there are many reasons to fear the climate crisis, Hoffmann, who has dedicated much of his life to studying it, has not yet surrendered to despair. Although he admitted that some days he feels optimistic and some days he feels the opposite, he is pleased that climate studies are growing in popularity. 

A just transition

Hoffmann made it clear that to avoid a climate catastrophe, societies must decarbonize and transition away from fossil fuels. However, what that transition should look like is more of a question of justice and equity. 

“The iron law of climate change is that those least responsible for causing the problems face the largest impacts from it,” Hoffman said. The climate crisis is doubly hard to tackle when you also consider that it is not simply one problem — “it’s modern life that we’re trying to transform.”

It is in this context that Canada, and the world, are operating in regarding climate change. In Hoffmann’s view, this context leads to one solution to the climate crisis: a just transition.

He argues, for example, that we shouldn’t advocate to shut down extraction in the Alberta tar sands immediately, as that would be too much of an economic disruption. To him, a just transition means that “the people and provinces that are dependent upon fossil energy extraction can see living the good life in a post-carbon world.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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