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Going Beyond Green Buildings to Climate Justice

Student-led town hall sets agenda for climate change and justice in UBC’s future.

Katie Hyslop 9 Mar

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

It’s time for the University of British Columbia to move beyond green initiatives like curbing energy use and become a leader in the fight for global climate justice, according to participants in a Climate Town Hall this week.

The university has won a lot of awards for sustainability efforts over the last 20 years, including three last year — one received in part for reducing emissions 34 per cent by 2016.

But as UBC looks to the future with the coming release of its 20-year strategic plan this spring, the climate response can’t be green business as usual anymore.

That was the message behind the first student-led Climate Town Hall at the Vancouver campus this week, organized by volunteers with the UBC Sustainability Collective, a new group of 12 student clubs concerned about climate change.

More than 300 students, faculty and staff came together to discuss how to integrate climate actions and climate justice into the implementation of the strategic plan over the next two decades.

But no one was talking about energy efficient buildings, halogen bulbs or other features of sustainability plans of the past.

Instead the Climate Town Hall asked participants to move beyond campus–based efforts to think about what the university can contribute to global research and innovation efforts.

And how they can contribute to the broader movement for climate justice, recognizing that the people who least contribute to accelerating climate change — the poor and those living in less industrialized countries — stand to lose the most.

“We really feel like climate change and climate justice really are the issues of our time,” said Grace Nosek, a member of the UBC Sustainability Collective and PhD student in law.

“Given this existential threat and this window that we’ve got, and because universities can be such leaders in the movement through research, education and setting norms, we really wanted to set the agenda around climate change and climate justice.”

Taking a page from the university’s strategic plan consultations, the Climate Town Hall engaged people in multiple ways. Poster boards and campus maps set up in the student union cafeteria invited passersby to use sticky notes and stickers to indicate what climate initiatives were already happening on campus and what they would like UBC to do to help reach climate-related goals.

There were also break-out discussion groups where participants brainstormed on topics like what climate justice on campus looks like, integrating climate change and justice into every course and creating a “Climate Hub” as a central base for all student, faculty and staff climate-related initiatives, research and projects.

“We had a diversity of activities so that students from all disciplines, all levels of knowledge and experience of climate change, can share their ideas and participate,” said Shakti Ramkumar, a fourth-year geography student and member of the UBC Sustainability Collective.

The five hour-long discussions ranged in size from just seven participants to 30, representing faculty and students from the geography, sociology, economics, political science, biology, environmental science and engineering faculties, as well as staff from the UBC Sustainability and Vice President Academic offices.

With an estimated 300 to 350 participants on a campus of nearly 70,000 people, it wasn’t a huge turnout, but the organizers were pleased.

“We’re excited not just about the number but truly the diversity of the people in the crowd,” said Nosek, “and this is something that people kept coming up to us and telling us over and over again, that they’d never really had this kind of mix of faculty, students and staff from so many different corners of the campus.”

And it wasn’t just the usual suspects. “I had friends who have never come out to a single sustainability, climate change event come out yesterday and participate enthusiastically,” Ramkumar added.

Many of the ideas that came up in discussions showed a movement in its infancy, from the need to assess how much climate justice is already integrated into UBC curricula and operations to canvassing participants on what UBC initiatives and groups already exist, as there is no comprehensive list.

But that didn’t stop people from thinking big about how UBC could initiate a broader cultural change to make climate change and justice a central element of all its activities.

Suggestions included encouraging more cross-disciplinary education, like one student’s idea that mining engineering students should take a geography class on the climate and human rights impacts of mining in South America.

Or requiring professors to discuss the social and political elements of climate change related to their field of study. Or introducing a mandatory course on colonialism, the campus location on unceded Musqueam First Nations land and the connection to climate justice.

All the feedback from the event will be incorporated into a public report the collective hopes to have out by next month.

While it will be too late to help inform the university’s strategic plan, the collective designed the town hall discussions using the same language as the university’s strategic plan consultations in hopes that the Climate Town Hall report can help inform the university’s annual strategic plan implementation reports.

“So we can say, oh, you want to tackle global challenges through local action? Here is what that would look like and who all the stakeholders are, who we’ve already engaged with, and they’re on board,” said Nosek.

The collective plans to challenge other universities to hold their own student-driven climate town halls.

“We had our suggestions for campus life and people could come vote on them, and usually it’s the other way around,” said Nosek. “Students are often voting on what other people have already chosen.”

This article was supported by those who generously contributed to the Rafe Mair Memorial Fund for Environmental Reporting on The Tyee. To find out more or contribute, click here.  [Tyee]

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