Acting Like the House is on Fire (Guest Post by Laurie Adkin)

In his speech to the university community May 3, 2022, President Bill Flanagan observed that “the global challenge of climate change is increasingly urgent.” It is good that the climate crisis has made it into his address to the university (although apparently the president is not yet permitted to use the term “crisis” in lieu of “challenge” in regard to climate change). The suggestion that the UAlberta is a “worldwide leader” in “addressing” the climate “challenge” is, however, dubious.

President Flanagan also stated that “food and water security is a critical issue,” and again, I am delighted that this is on his radar. Sadly, the UAlberta has not prioritized these areas of teaching and research in the past any more than it has action on the climate crisis. For this to change, the university’s administrators would have to “address” the reality that progress on food and water security, global warming, and other socio-ecological crises is dependent on the rapid phasing-out of fossil fuel extraction—something that the University of Alberta remains heavily invested in, in multiple ways.

So I ask: What does President Flanagan understand by “addressing” climate change, and what comparators does he use for “worldwide leadership”?  Yes, I know about the SDG and sustainability rankings, and I know that the Sustainability Office was recruited to help gather data to push the university up in the rankings. I also know that a lot of greenwashing goes on in the institutional and corporate worlds. Everything depends on the criteria and indicators. An institution’s energy footprint and reduction of wastes are typically key measurements used in sustainability ranking systems. Such actions reduce the institution’s costs and make budgetary sense—independent of the climate crisis. Stronger tests of commitment to rein in global warming—ones that might entail conflict with government or private sector funders—lie elsewhere.

Here are some questions for President Flanagan, the VPs, and Deans about other indicators of their leadership in responding to the climate crisis.

In 2020-21, the UAlberta’s leadership declined to sign on to the Global Letter to the UN Secretary General from higher education institutions, declaring the existence of a climate emergency and committing the signatory institutions to a three-point action plan. This commitment included investment in education and research addressing the climate crisis. Twenty-one other PSEIs in Canada signed this letter, including the universities of Toronto, Montréal, UBC, Western, and Memorial. But not the UAlberta. Not even after the Climate Action Coalition at the UAlberta obtained more than 3,500 signatures (690 from the UAlberta) in 2021 on a petition to get the laggards to sign. Why is that, Mr. Flanagan?

Nor has the leadership of the UAlberta signed on to the successor to the Global Letter, the “Race to Zero” campaign. Why is that, Mr. Flanagan?

Could the president explain how the university plans to implement its commitment to “dismantle racism” without acknowledging the profoundly racist nature of extractive capitalism and “sacrifice zones” like the oil sands? Or the environmental racism imbedded in global warming? Will the VP Research tell the university community how much money the university receives from the fossil fuel industry for research performed by university-employed academics?

Will the VP Research provide a breakdown of the expenditure of the $75 million Future Energy Systems CFREF by project so that the university’s involvement in different areas of energy and climate research can be analyzed?  

Will the Provost report to the university community on the scholarship, internship, summer school, and other student-oriented programs that are funded by corporations or industry associations in the fossil fuels sector? And on the amounts of these programs and the quid pro quos (e.g., training of employees for the fossil fuel corporations)? On how these numbers compare to the programs offered to students to take alternative career paths?

Will the Provost explain why he and his Signature Areas Selection Panel twice rejected proposals to create interdisciplinary signature areas in critical ecological studies (in 2017 and 2018)? These were opportunities to demonstrate the university’s commitment to “addressing” climate change. In 2022, the UAlberta still has no major research initiative (comparable to Energy Systems) focused on post-carbon transition strategies.

Will the Provost report on how the university plans to support interdisciplinary programs related to the climate crisis and related ecological crises, such as the interdisciplinary BA in Environmental Studies that has never received support for faculty positions?

Will the Dean of every faculty provide an annual report on the faculty’s investments in, and contributions to education, research, community collaborations, and physical footprint related to the climate emergency? Will the Deans explain how they incentivize faculty and support students to engage in this work? What, for example, is the Faculty of ALES doing to support regenerative agricultural practices that eliminate reliance on fossil fuel inputs and protect biodiversity? To shift food consumption away from animals “processed” in intensive livestock operations that are a significant source of methane emissions and other pollutants? How would a decision to prioritize research on low carbon, plant-based diets affect ALES’ relationships with industry funders?

Will the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta commit to divesting the institution’s endowment funds and pension plans from fossil fuel sector corporations and from financial institutions that finance these corporations? Will the board provide short- and medium-term schedules for completing this divestment?

The IPCC has reported that, in 2018, 89 per cent of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industry. Emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels must be cut by half by 2030 if we are to have any chance at all of not exceeding a 1.5C increase in global average temperature. Recent reports say that rich countries like Canada must phase out fossil fuel production completely by 2034. We are already seeing the feedback loops kicking in, accelerating global heating. Is this a climate emergency, or isn’t it, Mr. Flanagan? Mr. Dew? Mr. Gilchrist? Ms. Robinson Fayek? Deans? Ms. Chisholm? What, do you believe, is our responsibility as a major research university to respond to this emergency?

In 2014, the Chair of the UAlberta’s Board of Governors, Doug Goss, proudly declared that “the oilsands industry would not exist without this university.” That was 22 years after the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The University of Alberta has a long road to tread to undo this legacy and replace it with one that takes the climate crisis and social justice seriously.

Laurie Adkin, Professor Emerita, Political Science, author of Knowledge for an Ecologically Sustainable Future? Innovation Policy and Alberta Universities (2020) and “Petro-Universities” (2021)



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