“The time we have left is very short”: systems and people need to combat climate crisis, says professor

Professor Danny Harvey on individual action at Science for Peace event

“The time we have left is very short”: systems and people need to combat climate crisis, says professor

Though the bulk of the damaging effects of the climate crisis are decades away, it is already “an emergency,” said Dr. Danny Harvey, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto, in a keynote speech.

“The time we have left is very short,” he continued, “compared to the time required to take the actions needed to avert otherwise inevitable catastrophic consequences.”

Harvey was speaking at a forum held by Science for Peace on January 14. The event was free and open to the public, attracting almost 200 attendees to Innis Town Hall.

What society needs to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations

Discussing solutions to the crisis, Harvey said, “We have to change the entire energy system. And not just that, we have to change social norms and values and the way people think, and that’s perhaps even harder… In fact, in many respects, it’s already too late.”

Displaying graphs of industrial carbon dioxide emissions in the past decades, Harvey pointed out that despite discussions of regulations and solutions, emission levels have maintained a steep and steady increase.

Harvey spoke about the need to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations and, ultimately, the climate. He discussed the need to decrease net emissions to zero in order to keep warming to below two degrees. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, this must occur by 2050. While a zero fossil fuel emission target will likely not be reached for a long time, negative emissions, such as reforestation, building up soil carbon, or directing capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide can be used to compensate for emissions.

Reduced costs and advancements in wind and solar energy will also help the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. According to Harvey, major reforms of the electricity system are required to completely adopt clean energy. From an engineering standpoint, the required technology is well on its way, and the changes may be attainable within 30 or 40 years.

Harvey also pointed out the need to change our current economy and industrial production process, but noted that this will be a complicated process that will also require behavioural shifts away from current mindsets of consumption and unlimited growth.

The importance of individual action

Whereas issues of energy and the economy largely involve systemic changes, individual action is also crucial, according to Harvey.

Diets, in particular, account for a significant fraction of global emissions, he explained. A 2018 research study has shown that meat consumption is disproportionately responsible for these emissions, compared to other sources of food.

Sustainable solutions such as clean energy still require resources — thus, our individual decisions to reduce consumption, purchase products to last in the long term, and use resources efficiently, should work in conjunction with systemic changes, and further reduce our environmental impact.

Fighting climate crisis denial in class

Dr. Dan Weaver on spending the Global Climate Strike answering questions in the classroom

Fighting climate crisis denial in class

Thousands of climate activists, including University of Toronto students, skipped their lectures to rally at Queen’s Park during the Global Climate Strike on September 27, demanding government action against the climate crisis.

But what happened to the U of T students who went to their lectures and classes?

Dr. Dan Weaver, an assistant professor at the Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences at UTSC, recalled teaching a first-year class that day in a Twitter thread in December.

For the students who attended, he turned his lecture into a question-and-answer period to address climate crisis denial.

Climate crisis denial refers to being doubtful of the overwhelming scientific consensus and implications of the climate crisis. A recent survey by The Angus Reid Institute found that 10 per cent of Canadians believe that the climate crisis is simply a theory, and 20 per cent think that the crisis is a natural occurrence, devoid of human contributions.

Events preceding Weaver’s lecture

Weaver and colleagues signed an open letter to U of T to have class officially cancelled on September 27 in order to allow for students to attend the climate strike. Despite this request being denied, professors were instructed to not penalize students of their absence.

Weaver took this opportunity to initiate a class discussion on climate crisis denial, since he inferred that in this sample of  students, there would be climate crisis deniers present.

Speaking with The Varsity, Weaver recalled: “It was a very quiet class to begin with, very unsure whether they can ask, what they can ask, [and] what would my reaction be.” Weaver did not criticize any students for their views, but rather welcomed their questions and answered their inquiries with research-based evidence.

He continued by explaining that, as an instructor in an educational role, “What I can contribute from the classroom is an opportunity to engage with the science of the issue, and in particular with an audience that hasn’t had the opportunity most likely to talk to someone in the field directly.”

Engaging students and encouraging them to ask questions

Weaver evaluated the impact of his efforts by the frequency and type of questions he received over the course of the semester. “Because when someone continues to come back and ask follow-up questions, they are now intellectually engaged.”

From his viewpoint, “I already won: they are thinking critically.”

“Some people who are very passionate about this or other issues are much too quick to put down people of the ‘wrong opinion,’” noted Weaver, “and tell them to believe [and] get on board. That is the wrong approach.”

“There is a lot to be gained by giving people the opportunity to just ask questions in an honest and sincere way, and I think that is critical and often missing.”

Breaking down three common questions asked by climate crisis deniers

One of the main reasons for climate crisis denial is that some deniers don’t trust the consensus “that [the] climate is changing, and we are the cause, because of [information from] computer models,” Weaver explained.

Climate modelling utilizes mathematical computer programming to predict, to its best ability, natural and human impacts on the progression of climate change based on atmospheric, land, ocean, and sea level measurements.

Weaver continued, “We have teams… across at least a dozen countries doing it independently and coming to the same results… reproducing past climates and making predictions about where things are going.”

Another common reason promoting climate crisis denial is that “the narrative that climate change is entirely controlled by the output of the sun.” This view is promoted by the Canadian non-governmental organization Friends of Science Society — which Weaver said is one of “the world leaders in climate skepticism.”

Weaver countered their belief that, as he described it “The sun is a primary driver of [the changing] climate.” Weaver explained, “[The sun] is not the only one that controls it; it is a lot more complicated than that — that narrative sells a very simple answer to a very complicated question.”

Weaver continued, “If we had no atmosphere, the sun would still warm the planet, but the overall average temperature of the planet would be below freezing… The atmosphere is very important for moderating climate.”

In an email to The Varsity, the Friends of Science Society falsely disputed Weaver’s characterization of the organization. “Friends of Science Society sees the sun as the main direct and indirect driver of climate change, not carbon dioxide from human industry,” it wrote. “Friends of Science does acknowledge that humans contribute nominally to climate change, and CO2 emissions have a nominal role in that.”

The society’s position that humans have a small impact on the climate crisis contradicts the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to the panel’s Fifth Assessment Report, it is “categorical in its conclusion: climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.”

A related common question from climate crisis deniers is, “Are we really having an impact, or is it all natural variability?” Addressing this, Weaver noted that “the climate naturally has variability and trends associated with it,” and these trends have been tracked, such as the measurements of the output of the sun during its 11-year solar cycle.

Weaver explained, “If you have an 11-year cycle and you think that climate is being driven entirely by the sun… logically then you expect to see this 11-year cycle in the climate going up and down, tracking with the sun.”

“And [then] we look at the data — is that actually what is happening in the climate? No, it’s not — there has to be more going on.”

Resources for understanding research on the changing climate

Weaver suggested the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Global Climate Change website as a resource to learn about the physical implications of the climate crisis. It provides information about the current state of the planet, including current measurements of carbon dioxide, global temperature, ice sheet melting, and sea levels.

Additionally, Weaver recommend looking at  the Climate Lab Book, a blog maintained by climate scientists featuring data visualizations of weather and climate patterns.

For discussions regarding climate crisis denial led by credible climate scientists, consider the blog RealClimate. If you prefer alternatives to blog platforms, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, engages with the public on Twitter and YouTube to discuss climate crisis denial.

“The best resource if you are a U of T student is probably to go talk to a faculty member involved,” noted Weaver. “You have that privilege that most people don’t have.”

Protestors call for climate action with Black Friday strike

Fridays for Future Toronto chapter organizes march ahead of United Nations Climate Change Conference

Protestors call for climate action with Black Friday strike

On Black Friday, Canada’s biggest shopping day of the year, hundreds of climate protestors took to the streets as a part of the Fridays for Future movement for action in response to the climate crisis, gathering in front of Queen’s Park for a rally before marching to City Hall. The strike also comes a few days before the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25). Leaders will meet on December 2 in Spain to submit climate action plans ahead of the 2020 deadline, in accordance with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

“We are striking today, on Black Friday, because we want to call out the system that forces us to live unsustainable lives. Because many of us don’t have the time, the money, or the option to live another way,” said Fridays for Future Toronto Chapter Head Allie Rougeot to the crowd. In her speech, she affirmed Fridays for Future’s commitment to Indigenous sovereignty and called on political leaders to take drastic climate action at the COP25 conference.

“We are demanding that in Spain, they do their jobs of protecting us and working for us.”

One theme of the strike was criticizing the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) investment in fossil fuels, with marchers placing “Divest RBC” stickers on the storefront of the bank as they passed by it. Volunteers stood in front of the bank holding a banner that read, “Canada’s #1 Fossil Bank. Divest Now!”

In an interview with The Varsity, Rougeot reflected on the Black Friday strike, held over two months after the Global Climate Strike in Toronto, which saw the participation of around 15,000 people. “The turnout is definitely smaller [this time], but we expected a smaller turnout. What I really like is how much mightier it is.”

She described the central tenets of the strike and Fridays for Future as “a just transition for workers, Indigenous rights, and marginalized communities being included and us fighting for them.”

Rougeot, a U of T student, criticized the university’s “horrific” investment in fossil fuels. “As much as I want to be proud of my school, I will never be proud of my school until they divest.”

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Similar to the Global Climate Strikes that took place in September, young people were particularly represented in this strike, with groups of middle- and high-school students striking together. Dunbarton High School student Devin Mathura commented on his presence at the strike with a large group of classmates: “We have to enforce the fight for climate change and [the fight] to declare a climate emergency by not going to school because why should we get an education when there’s not going to be a future for us?”

DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

Seventeen-year-old climate activist Abonti Nur Ahmed spoke at the rally, criticizing the elitism of the climate movement. “I don’t remember the last time someone asked me how it was affecting my community and how it’s affecting the people that I know,” Ahmed said to the crowd.

In an interview with The Varsity, Ahmed said that the community she was representing was a politically disenfranchised one: “They don’t know how to fight for their own rights.” Her speech advocated for intersectionality in the climate movement, which she defines as not putting the blame on individuals, but rather understanding that systemic change needs to come before placing any burdens on already marginalized communities.

She hopes to inspire people to learn about intersectionality for themselves. “When I was speaking, the only thing that was in the back of my mind [was]: ‘I hope that people hear what I say and decide to go look up what intersectional climate change means,’ because I can say everything I want, but it has to start with the person’s passion.”

Strange Weather: The Science and Art of Climate Change

Without artists and humanists, science is frequently lost in translation, while artistic work that disregards science risks irrelevancy. This one day symposium will bring together climate scientists, humanists and artists to bridge this disciplinary gap. The School of the Environment, in partnership with co-sponsors the Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI) and the Centre for the Study of the United States (CSUS), will welcome guest scholars and artists who are committed to – and practiced in – the current paradigm shift to less siloed climate change thinking.

Confronting the rise of eco-anxiety

“Who am I in the context of climate crisis?”

Confronting the rise of eco-anxiety

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first introduced the world to the possibility of global warming. His research focused on the widespread effects of coal burning. However, his research was oversimplistic. People couldn’t imagine a future of mass extinction and forest fires, so his findings did not lead to widespread fear.

In 1956, a news report on long-term environmental changes from greenhouse gas emissions appeared in The New York Times. However, the article noted that as there was little risk of running out of fossil fuels, industries would likely continue consuming them. As long as it paid to consume coal and oil, and those resources were cheap and plentiful, then such practices would soldier on to generate profits. And so they did.

Now, half a century later, elementary school children are seeking psychiatric care to cope with debilitating panic and anxiety over the environmental crisis. A study conducted by Caroline Hickman at the University of Bath showed that 45 per cent of children suffer from depression after a nature disaster.

‘Eco-anxiety’ is a recently-coined term that encapsulates the rising emotional and psychological responses to the climate crisis. From 2008–2009, the American Psychological Association put together a task force that investigated the relationship between the climate crisis and human psychology. The results for this study revealed that people remained more or less blasé about the climate crisis.

In 2018, however, a Yale University and George Mason University study group reported that 29 per cent of Americans were “alarmed” about the climate, up 11 per cent from 2009. The denial that was prevalent just a decade ago is dissolving, and in some cases is being replaced by paralyzing fear.

The necessity for an intersectional approach

While eco-anxiety has only garnered attention in recent years, people are no strangers to our psychological states being under environmental influence. Dr. Romila Verma of U of T’s Department of Geography and Planning gave three possible reasons why the global population has seen a sharp increase in climate change-specific mental health issues.

As the climate crisis persists, environmental destruction becomes more visible and more serious, as Verma wrote to The Varsity. We’re told that if we haven’t suffered an extreme climate event yet, we will, and in the meantime, we’re being “bombarded” day-in and day-out with news of devastation occurring elsewhere.

Verma also mentioned social media being a contributing factor to anxiety in general, be it climate-specific or otherwise. “Before the advent of social media,” she wrote, “[a crisis] was not as visible unless you were directly hit by these issues.”

According to a press release from the United Nations in March, there are only “11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change.” Verma believes that this has increased anxiety among young people especially. This timeline tabled an ultimatum that children are forced to confront. Much of the action and campaigning since then was born of this responsibility, a burden that children know they inherited as the byproduct of centuries of reckless economic dreams.

While mainstream media tells us that eco-anxiety is a new, emerging dimension of the climate crisis, we would be ignorant to assume that this concern really is brand new for all populations. We would be just as mistaken to consider eco-anxiety an equal-impact phenomenon. Like many other crises, the climate crisis and eco-anxiety run along intersectional race, class, and gender lines.

For Indigenous communities, a loss of land and disrespect for the sacredness of the non-human is not a recent occurrence, but rather part of a centuries-long history. Furthermore, for individuals with disabilities, well-intentioned but under-researched practices, such as the plastic straw ban, come at the expense of accessibility. Exposure to natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes has also been shown to increase the risk of gender-based violence, as it exacerbates the already vulnerable position of women.

There have been strides made in understanding the impacts of climate crisis. In recent decades, there has been recognition that gender is an important factor in the realm of developmental policy. In the 1970s, the concept of environmental refugees emerged, with particular regard to the desertification occurring in parts of Africa. These intersectional factors must influence the theory and methods of addressing the climate crisis.

“There are many instances of environmental injustices which are in direct violation of [the] human rights of indigenous, disabled, minorities, immigrants, refugees, homeless people,” wrote Verma, and not all have the 11 years to wait. “The vulnerable populations around the world are already being denied basic needs like food, water, and shelter.”

The harrowing reality is that regardless of a universal trend of growing urgency, we as a society still invest in climate protection for privileged populations at the expense of the already disadvantaged. Furthermore, we still believe that the limitation of harmful corporate activities for the safety of the marginalized is transgressive.

Eco-anxiety’s long history

Before the industrial revolution, before contemporary capitalism, and before modern urban development was the long history of Indigenous peoples battling colonialist environmental destruction. These struggles date back to early European settlement that operated on the ideology of ‘terra nullius’ — the concept of no man’s land, in which land that is deemed unoccupied can be occupied by a sovereign state. This was used by European settlers to justify expanding into Indigenous territory and incite genocide against Indigenous peoples.

Everything that has come of these territories since has been built on the notion that the Earth was made solely for human extraction. For the Indigenous peoples who fought to protect their land back then, eco-anxiety is far from a post-2000s phenomenon.

In a Toronto Star project, Anishinaabe journalist, Varsity alum, and Indigenous Issues Columnist Tanya Talaga highlighted the seven Cree communities that form the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council lining the James Bay coast. She writes that, eco-anxiety for them has been “a reality for decades.”

In Concordia University Magazine, William Gagnon posits that among Indigenous peoples, there is a growing understanding of a socially created feeling of homesickness without even leaving home, which he dubs “solastalgia.” In watching one’s own home environment break down, a longing forms for a home and safety that existed in a different time.

Beyond the experiences being multiplied temporally, there’s also a verticality to Indigenous stress. Talaga further elaborates, commenting that “when you don’t have access to health care such as clinics with doctor or nurses, or communities with high school or safe housing, clean water or working sewage, watching the land change before your eyes due to [the climate crisis] adds another layer of despair.”

Talaga also noted that few research studies have been conducted on Indigenous sites. However, Indigenous peoples have a wealth of knowledge in oral histories passed down for many generations full of climate understanding.

In the past several years there has been a growing interest in the application of Indigenous knowledge to land-use and land-management practices, reviving traditional ecological knowledge and recognizing — for perhaps the first time in a long time — the value that had been displaced.

Just as the Anthropocene — the current geological age of human influence on the Earth — is not new, nor does it only date as far back as the invention of Western machinery and technology. Mindful practices are not new either; in fact, they’ve existed for far longer than we think.

Racism and climate refugees

In North American suburbia, placing polluters near Black neighborhoods is not an unknown practice. This doesn’t occur out of explicit malicious and racist intent, but rather because it is the least expensive option.

On a more worldwide scale, racial tensions can be found in issues such as food insecurity, economic decline, and, more recently, forced migration. In the wake of a drastically changing climate, the term ‘climate refugee’ has been used to describe people who have been displaced or are at risk of temporary or permanent displacement due to environmental change.

This conflict does not end with the environmental movement itself. Competition, ethnic tension, and distrust between migratory and host societies are highly common. This low level of social cohesion has been linked to greater vulnerability, and further disconnects disadvantaged communities from institutions. As the movement of large bodies of people increases in frequency — although the required aid upon arrival becomes greater as well — disputes follow ethnic divisions fiercely.

In the sphere of international law, the question of responsibility is tabled: who will protect these climate refugees? Political ecologists point out that the challenges of the climate crisis deepen questions of distribution and access to resources from water, land, and infrastructure, to more complex ‘items’ such as capital, education, and aid.

Climate refugee narratives often mobilize racist fears that the arrivals of impoverished populations are threats to national security, and thus could prompt pre-emptive reactionary policies, preventing movement before it has even begun. These sweeping assumptions of bodies in motion could further international divides, adding to the existing eco-anxiety of disempowered populations, and are a great failure to address the very fundamental question of social inequity.

The ones bearing the brunt of it: children

In an interview with Reuters, Hickman remarked that the current state of our climate leaves today’s youth with feelings of betrayal and abandonment. She further emphasized that “fear from children needs to be taken seriously by adults.”

Leaving these issues unaddressed could further compound their fears.

Children are a particularly vulnerable age group, not only because the climate crisis weighs disproportionately heavy on their futures, but also because post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following catastrophes, depression, aggression, and social withdrawal are more common for them, and their symptoms tend to be more long-term when compared to adults.

Verma pointed out that many young people have not hesitated to be at the forefront of movements like Fridays for Future, which was pioneered by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and picked up later by equally-impassioned students such as Wiikwemkoong First Nation water protector Autumn Peltier and U of T’s own Allie Rougeot.

“There is no right or wrong age to be a changemaker,” Verma wrote. “Since young people are the future adults, and they will face more severe consequences of climate change, they should become part of the solution.”

Verma explained that in her personal experiences advocating for climate justice, she sees today’s youth as key voices in forcing those in power to implement and innovate accordingly. She also said that there are the mental health challenges that come with such a large undertaking. She believes that in order to adequately care for child activists it is important to examine our broken mental health systems.

“There are incidents of these activists being bullied, harassed and made fun of,” wrote Verma. “In the face of adversity, it takes a lot of courage and resiliency to withstand this onslaught.”

“My concern is that some of these climate activists might face emotional turmoil.”

Where do we go from here?

Eco-anxiety means different things for everyone. It may be necessary to take a step back from the events of the climate crisis and ask ourselves, “who am I in the context of climate crisis?”

“Climate change impacts are felt in every section of society however, the main burden of its consequences falls on marginalized and vulnerable populations,” wrote Verma.

As students and faculty of this institution, we each come from one form of privilege or another. Our identities are not without the protections offered by our race, gender, class, or other identity groups. For most of us, it is important to understand our anxieties and our positions in relation to those who have been disadvantaged for much longer than media and history has allowed us to realize.

For students like ourselves, our futures hang over a precipice. What is our role in this fight? What are the decisions that we’re obligated to make? In the face of mass extinctions, food strikes, and forced migration, family-building has become an unethical dream. The uncertainties linger like smog in the air.

We have to look at both ourselves and each other and ask: what do we owe to our own futures in order to create a livable world for all?

U of T students join millions around the world in historic Global Climate Strike

Protestors voice discontent with university policy, Fridays for Future organized teach-in for children

U of T students join millions around the world in historic Global Climate Strike

On September 20, U of T students stood in solidarity with millions of protestors around the world in a historic Global Climate Strike to demonstrate against inaction surrounding the climate crisis. Inspired by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, the week-long strike kicked off on Friday in more than 150 countries where youth activists coordinated local events. Protestors gathered outside of Simcoe Hall to voice their anger and anxiety over the emergency, later moving to Hart House for a climate crisis teach-in.

Students speak out

“Which side are you on?” written in black paint, was stretched across a banner held by climate activists on the steps of Simcoe Hall, where students expressed their frustrations and anxieties about their future in the face of a climate crisis.

Students from Leap UofT led the rally. Their grievances were against the university’s involvement in the development of the Mauna Kea Thirty Meter Telescope, continued investment in the fossil fuel industry, and inaction over the mental health crisis on campus.

The last major environmental protest took place four years ago during a divestment campaign that led to the formation of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Divestment. The committee’s recommendations — including targeted divestment — were rejected by President Meric Gertler in 2016, who instead mandated a case-by-case approach to divesting from companies involved in the fossil fuel industry.

“An administration that does not know how to treat any land with care because of the same undergirding logics that lead it to treat people as fungible, as disposable, as less,” said vocal mental health advocate and U of T student Lucinda Qu, in a rebuke of the university’s policies on climate and mental health. Qu was among an array of speakers, including local climate activists and lawyers from Climate Justice Toronto.

New Democratic Party MP candidate for Spadina–Fort York Diana Yoon joined students in their protest. “I think that it’s important to amplify and support youth-led movements,” said Yoon in an interview with The Varsity.

“The role of a university should be to play a leadership role in showcasing what is possible,” said Yoon on what the university can do in fighting the climate crisis. “I think it’s a microcosm of a bigger picture, of a larger society… There’s so much potential to showcase what young people are demanding.”

Hart House teach-in

Outside of Hart House, Fridays for Future’s Toronto chapter organized facilitator-led group sessions to teach children about how to discuss the climate crisis. At the event, presenters sang songs and led cheers with a crowd of school-aged children, asking them to connect with the environment. “All the science has been there for years. We didn’t listen. The mass protests have been there. Why is the kids’ aspect working better than the rest? And how can we empower all the kids that are coming… to have meaningful conversations, especially right before a big election,” said Allie Rougeot, head of Fridays for Future in Toronto, in an interview with The Varsity.

Nadine, a second-year student at U of T, led a small group in a session on how to speak to politicians about the climate crisis: “I’m specifically trying to teach kids, trying to teach other students… how to effectively respond and speak with politicians, because they’re the ones who create the change.”

Gabriel Kerekes, another facilitator, led a session about talking to family members for around 30 elementary-aged students, and encouraged them to think about compassion and diversity.

“You don’t have to be angry at your parents if they don’t understand you right now, or even if they don’t understand you at all, because you’re part of something way, way, way bigger. This is your family too, and together we can all work together to influence one another,” explained Kerekes during his group session. He explained to The Varsity that communicating with family members is a stepping stone to communicating to anyone.

“Every single one of us is having an issue with communication,” said Kerekes. “We don’t know how to tell people in a way that they can get on board with the issues at hand for a variety of reasons.”

Katia Newton, 15, skipped school along with her friends to attend the teach-in. “If you’re not actually helping or doing things, even if it’s just showing up to a protest, then you can’t really say that you’re helping. But you can’t just complain and then not do anything. But it’s a big issue and it’s going to impact us, especially the younger generations — and we can’t even vote yet. But we can show up and we can do what we can,” Newton said.

Parker and Ziggy, both 15, had the same idea. “We can’t just sit idly by — this is our world. It’s being passed down to us. We’re not going to just let old people shit on our planet. It’s ours now,” said Parker.

U of T and climate

Steve Easterbrook, Director of U of T’s School of the Environment, also attended the rally, and said he was inspired by the student protests: “I support the youth that are getting out there on the streets… I work on climate change, climate modeling, and it’s the most hopeful sign I’ve seen in years.”

Easterbrook, wearing a sign that read “I’m a Scientist, Ask Me Anything,” said of climate science: “People don’t realize that once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, it basically stays there for thousands of years,” unlike many other air pollutants.

According to the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation’s 2018 Carbon Footprint Reports, the combined total carbon footprint of the university’s pension fund and endowment fund is over 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Esterbrook also said of U of T’s administration, “I would love to see a much stronger statement from the central administration supporting the students that want to get out and take action.”

Jessica Bell, MPP for University–Rosedale, attended the teach-in and hosted workshops teaching children how to talk to politicians about the climate crisis. Just a day before, Bell’s office released an online form collecting signatures for a letter calling on Gertler and the university to “support student, faculty and staff participation in the Global Climate Strike on Friday, September 27, 2019.”

In an email to faculty and students on September 22, Faculty of Arts & Science Dean Melanie Woodin requested that instructors provide flexibility for students who do not attend class on Friday, September 27 to join the Toronto climate strike.

Elizabeth Church, spokesperson for the university, held firm on the university’s commitments to the environment in an email to The Varsity: “[We] are committed to playing a leadership role in addressing climate change through our research, our teaching and by taking action to reduce the carbon footprint of our campuses.”

In a U of T News article, John Robinson — Gertler’s Presidential Advisor on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability — advised students to participate in events across the university.

“We encourage students to use the opportunity of the climate-related events going on at U of T and in the community to learn more about climate change and climate action.”

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

Editor’s Note (September 25, 2:53pm): This article has been updated to correct a quote by Qu.

U of T and the climate crisis: what you need to know

In light of Gertler’s commitment to U7+ climate goals, a look at U of T’s recent history of climate policy

U of T and the climate crisis: what you need to know

Meric Gertler attended the inaugural U7+ Summit this July, and affirmed his commitment to addressing climate change, along with the leaders of 48 universities worldwide. The U7+ Alliance aims to confront global problems, including the climate crisis, through the commitments of various universities.

However, over the past few years, U of T’s climate record has been marred with dissent, marked notably by Gertler’s 2016 rejection of divesting from all fossil fuel companies, as recommended by the President’s Advisory Committee on Divestment (PAC). 

Principle 3 of the U7+ Alliance states, “We recognize that our universities have a major role to play in addressing the environmental issues and challenges to sustainability such as climate change, biodiversity and energy transition. This should include leading by example on our own campuses.” As Gertler and U of T continue to voice support for fighting the climate crisis, The Varsity takes a look at what the university has done in recent years.

Background

Leading up to 2015, student activists and a Toronto350.org petition encouraged the university to create a committee that would look into U of T’s financial investments and make recommendations. The PAC specifically recommended that U of T divest from firms that spread misinformation about climate change, derive 10 per cent or more of their revenue from aggressive or non-conventional extraction, or disregard the 1.5 degree warming threshold. 

“We had come up with what we thought was a very reasonable and well-thought-out approach,” said Professor Matthew Hoffmann, who served on the PAC. 

In rejecting the PAC’s suggestions, U of T announced its plans to instead evaluate investments on a “firm-by-firm basis,” using “Environmental, Social, and Governance [ESG] factors.” 

“It’s what everyone should be doing,” said Hoffmann on U of T’s usage of ESG principles. “I don’t think it necessarily goes far enough in terms of a climate crisis.”

Even as campaigns similar to U of T’s have been enacted at universities such as McGill University and the University of British Columbia, the sole postsecondary institution in Canada to commit to divestment is Université Laval.

Where are we now?

On the heels of the rejection of the PAC’s recommendations, President Gertler instituted the President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability (CECCS). Focusing on sustainability and academic response to climate change, CECCS champions three main concepts: campus as a living lab, university as an agent of change, and curriculum innovation.

The CECCS’ work is in line with Principle 3, Action 1 of the U7+ Alliance, dictating that “all students of our universities will have access to courses related to climate, biodiversity and sustainability.”

However, many feel that this is simply not sufficient. “If, as [the CECCS] argues, U of T needs to be a living lab and an agent of change, then this must go beyond curriculum to the material and energy foundations of the institution,” said Professor Scott Prudham.

As of the 2018 University of Toronto Asset Management (UTAM) Carbon Footprint Report, carbon emissions for the Pension and Endowment portfolios are 13.1 and 12.5 per cent higher than their Reference portfolios, respectively. UTAM directs U of T’s investments, which amounts to almost $10 billion. This measurement is comprised of total emissions and emissions per million dollars USD invested. 

“Our portfolio is higher in carbon emissions than I’d like to see,” said Hoffmann.

“Beyond Divestment,” the document that outlines Gertler’s rejection of the PAC’s recommendations, emphasizes that fossil fuels only contribute to a quarter of carbon emissions, citing this as a limiting factor when considering the possibility of divestment. However, divestment increasingly has a financial logic, as the report agrees that investing in fossil fuels may be riskier in the long-term. 

“If U of T came out with a strong commitment to pursue divestment, it would send signals. After all, financial markets are about information and expectation, and if large institutional investors begin to show aversion to investing in fossil fuel companies, then others may follow suit and suddenly those firms do not look like good investments anymore,” said Prudham.

But the logic of divestment goes beyond financial considerations. “Divestment activists think… this really needs to be about changing the way society thinks, what we invest in,” said Hoffman.

Where are we going?

This debate over what it means to be a university in the face of the climate crisis causes many to still feel as though U of T is not living up to its potential. Divestment remains a priority for student environmental groups such as Leap UofT, who simply are not satisfied with the university’s focus on academic solutions and sustainability.

“This administration has been very good at greenwashing its unwillingness to challenge the corporate power driving the climate crisis under support for sustainability initiatives. Those initiatives are wonderful on their own, but they aren’t a substitute for divestment,” said Leap UofT co-founder Julia DaSilva. In the past two years, Leap UofT has focused their divestment efforts on Victoria College, where the Board of Regents Investment Committee has agreed to look into the possibility of divestment.

“Our aim with these campaigns has been to rebuild the momentum around divestment, and this year, we’re working on ways to direct this momentum back into a cross-campus campaign that will force U of T’s administration out of their confidence that divestment at U of T is dead,” said DaSilva.