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Opinion: On climate, U of T must take more institutional responsibility than its students

Admin must rely less on community initiatives, more on green food policy, divestment
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Questions of who holds the most power to fight the inevitable climate crisis have recently become more urgent than ever. With an endowment of around $2.5 billion as of spring 2020, U of T has the funds to make ample change from within. Some of this funding has gone toward university-based sustainable initiatives, but U of T has failed to take more serious climate action — such as divesting from fossil fuels. 

Considering the university’s recent increase in income, U of T must consider how this money could be used in the climate fight. Perhaps one of the most significant measures could be implementing adequate vegan and vegetarian options in dining halls and cafeterias around campus. One of U of T’s greatest strengths as an institution is its size, and promoting vegan diets, or even offering more diverse food options, could have a significant impact. 

Researchers at Oxford University have found vegan diets to be the “single biggest way” to reduce one’s environmental impact, as it can reduce carbon footprint in relation to food by up to 73 per cent. Right now, students are the ones pushing for a shift to offer more vegan food options, not U of T, as groups like U of T’s Veg Club promote vegan and vegetarian diets and options on campus. If the university were to encourage this behaviour instead, the impact would be significant, if for no other reason than the university’s large outreach. 

Moreover, U of T currently holds stocks in “the 200 fossil fuel companies around the world with the largest reserves of coal, oil, and gas” according to student-run club Toronto350. The club has been a prominent force in the fight for divestment, and another student-run organization, Leap UofT, has kept up the same work. While students are using the limited resources they have to push for divestment, the university’s response has not been as substantial as it could be and instead favours initiatives that have students still doing the heavy lifting

This push and pull between such a powerful institution and the students who lack the necessary power brings into question a much larger discussion on the climate crisis. In every part of the fight, even off campus, a recurring theme is communities that are the most affected by repercussions of the crisis pushing the hardest for action while the top billionaires and corporations who contribute to the crisis the most idly stand by. 

For example, Indigenous communities, who are arguably the most affected by the climate crisis within Canada, have contributed greatly to the fight against it, with one organization, Indigenous Climate Action, spending over $250,000 on community support, programs, and gatherings to give back to the environment. 

Another important consideration in this discussion is the attribution of responsibility. By pushing for student-focused organizations and initiatives in the fight against the climate crisis, the university is abdicating its own role. 

A great analogy to this is the “climate clock” in New York City. This political art piece, which displays a countdown of the time we have left to achieve zero emissions before the damage is irreparable, is notably located in a lower-income part of the city. 

The clock’s target audience is not only tourists and viewers on social media, but more specifically working-class people in America, those who are simultaneously the most vulnerable to the crisis, the lowest contributors, and who lack the resources to help. This puts guilt on individuals who are incapable of creating lasting change in comparison to more powerful institutions, such as the billionaires who contribute the most to the crisis. 

As postsecondary students, our finances and outreach are limited to begin with, so while these student-focused efforts should undoubtedly continue, they should not be the only action; institutional efforts should be made to produce the greatest net outcome. We as students can only be as successful in the climate fight as our institutions. The university must recognize that it has the greatest burden to carry.

Katie Kinross is a second-year political science, English, and equity studies student at Trinity College.