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UTSG administration’s lack of support for the Global Climate Strike reflects its greenwashing practices

Institutional support is a first step toward quantifiable climate action, as seen at UTM
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Taking a legitimate stance against the climate crisis is a serious commitment for large institutions. It’s no surprise then that each campus has taken a different stance on the crisis, as priorities between the administrations seem to differ drastically.

Just a minute spent searching for anything related to ‘UTM’ and ‘environment’ shows how the administration has been working to emphasize the importance of mobilizing students in the present. As the only one of the three campuses to offer workshops and resources in relation to the official Climate Strike, UTM’s stance largely aligns with what youth climate activists tell us we should be doing about the climate crisis.

On September 20, youth in over 100 countries united to demand stronger climate action from governments, institutions, and corporations. At this moment, UTM’s administration and student body appear to be unified, with UTM offering a combination of administration-sanctioned online resources and physical workshops preparing students for climate activism.

The same cannot be said for UTSG, where it’s clear that students will have to strike without administrative support. Faculty of Arts & Science Dean Melanie Woodin sent an email to students on September 22 in support of the strike, but so far central administration has been silent. This is not to say that UTSG students are not exposed to climate activism on campus, because such a statement would discredit the organizations that are advocating for this cause. But that’s just it: with an extremely diverse student population of 61,690 students, as of fall 2018, placing the onus on student organizations to lead their peers in climate activism is ambitious and bordering unreasonable. For reference, UTM had 15,546 students enrolled in that same period, which is nearly a quarter of UTSG’s enrollment. Administrative support would help UTSG students navigate climate activism and mobilize around a central organizer. U of T is consistently named one of the top three universities in Canada, and to deny its influence in the realm of Canadian politics and policy would be naïve.

In the same way that you would not enforce the same environmental policies in two different countries, it’s clear that efforts of engagement across the different campuses must vary as well. This is not a request for the administration to hold the students’ hands and guide them, but rather a simple call for the university administration to encourage students to take a stance on the climate crisis beyond just scholarly pursuit.

It is imperative that we do not forget that the current wave of climate activism has largely been a bottom-up social movement. Through grassroots organizations, the climate crisis has become one of the most serious political questions facing current and future politicians.

Greenwashing at U of T

The bureaucracy that governs the three U of T campuses is complicated and messy, to say the least. But much like other major Canadian universities such as the University of British Columbia and McGill University, the UTSG administration is also guilty of greenwashing.

‘Greenwashing’ can be thought of as the act of implementing misleading pro-environment practices for the sole purpose of bolstering an organization’s reputation. There is nothing wrong with phasing out plastic cutlery and creating sustainable spaces on campus, but how big is the impact of those actions compared to divesting from the fossil fuel industry?

In 2016, U of T refused to divest despite student protests and the Presidential Advisory Committee’s recommendations. Instead, U of T declared it would make more conscious investments that account for socio-environmental concerns, namely the climate crisis.

Divestment from the fossil fuel industry is not the only action that U of T can take to support efforts against the climate crisis, but it is worth remembering that one of the main drivers of the crisis is directly related to our consumption of fossil fuels. With that in mind, it becomes difficult to understand how rejecting divestment is compatible with U of T’s commitment to sustainability. Instead, it appears that U of T decided to slap ‘sustainable’ on their finances and call it a night.

But what does a three-year-old divestment campaign have to do with the upcoming climate strike? It all has to do with the fact that, three years later, the administration still takes part in greenwashing. It’s no surprise that U of T faced significant backlash after turning down divestment, but since then, the administration has taken important steps to cover up many of its less popular environmental approaches.

Some of these actions include founding the U7+ Alliance, designating funds for student research on sustainability, and participating in the University Climate Change Coalition. All of these actions improve the university’s reputation and help to support students interested in sustainability. However, none of these really represent a hard-lined stance against the climate crisis as well as official support for the Global Climate Strike would.

The effect that committing to the strike will have cannot be quantified, but it is still an opportunity to communicate the urgency of the situation and apply pressure where it counts. No matter what campus you’re at, what faculty you may be in, or what college you choose, just remember that you have a voice and that the choices you make can help cause change. Historically, the environmental movement has largely been bottom-up, with public outcry as one of its main driving forces.

This is not a free pass for U of T and other large institutions alike to pass off the responsibility to youth, when the climate crisis is very much an issue that indiscriminately affects everyone. However, for those of you reading this who feel fatigued and overwhelmed, remember that there is a community here that is willing to listen.

As we get closer and closer to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 11-year deadline to minimize rising temperatures, we have to accept that we are at a point where we must make real concessions in our fight against the climate crisis. The Global Climate Strike may seem revolutionary or aggressive to some, but we need to be ambitious in order to succeed.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Beverly Teng is a third-year Environmental Science and Philosophy student at University College.