By UMSU Executive Committee
Climate change and its disastrous consequences are playing out in real time. Both UMSU and the University of Manitoba have recently taken steps to further progress toward sustainability and we urge our members to join in on initiatives that contribute to addressing a serious global problem.
In case anyone needed additional evidence of the terrifying power of climate change, on July 14 a freakish heat wave at the remote outpost of Alert, Nunavut – some 3,800 km north of Winnipeg – saw temperatures surge to plus-21 Celsius, making it warmer than Victoria, BC that same day. That is just one example in the past month, which climate scientists predict will be the hottest month in human history. The issue of climate change can no longer be framed as something that will affect just future generations; it is affecting us, and it is happening right now.
The situation has accelerated so fast that a British newspaper, The Guardian, chose to update its publisher’s style guide in April to prefer its editors and reporters replace ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ with the preferred terms of climate breakdown, climate crisis, and global heating.
That same month, the Government of Canada released a report describing how Canada is experiencing warming at twice the global rate. The predicted outcomes: toward the end of this century there will be far more heatwaves resulting in droughts and wildfires across the prairies and British Columbia; increased precipitation – but less snow – provoking floods in eastern Canada; and persistent thawing of permafrost and loss of ice coverage in the northern territories, calling into question the viability of communities in the region. The raging wildfires in BC that blanketed western Canada in smoke in 2017 and 2018, and the floods that submerged swathes of Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec earlier this year offer a glimpse of the norm in such a future. And yet, climate instability has already pushed Canada’s emergency services past their limit. The result being this spring more Canadian soldiers were deployed to help assist in climate disasters within Canada than were deployed overseas.
The root cause – human activity.
Therein lies the paradox of the growing global climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body responsible for assessing climate change. Formed in 1988, the IPCC is comprised of hundreds of scientific experts responsible for reviewing the climate data and research submitted by thousands of peers around the world. It has reached arguably the strongest consensus anywhere in the scientific community – climate change and its dire consequences have been caused by human activity, but can also be mitigated by human action and ingenuity. The catch: we have just under 12 years to act in order to rein in the worst runaway consequences of what could become a true climate catastrophe.
The good news? After nearly three decades of warnings from the IPCC, the rest of the world is now paying attention.
Sparked by 16-year old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who in August 2018 stopped attending classes in order to stage her own solo climate strike in front of the Swedish parliament, the #FridaysForFuture movement coordinated a global school walkout in March that saw 2,052 climate protest actions in 123 countries around the world. An entire week of concerted global climate strikes is now scheduled to begin on September 20. To find out more, and to organize your own event, see here.
Closer to home, new polling numbers in Canada indicate that for the first time ever voters view climate change as one of their top 3 priorities for the upcoming federal election this October, alongside traditional concerns over the cost of living and health care.
However, when grappling with such an overwhelming issue it can be hard to know where to start. But local action remains vital. Despite the majority of the focus placed on taking action at the national or provincial levels, cities and municipalities are equally key to creating more sustainable societies – sometimes more so, given the majority of the world’s population, consumption and decision-making power exists in cities.
Having flip-flopped from initially favouring a flat-rate carbon tax as part of their own environmental strategy, the Pallister government is now pursuing an ill-advised court challenge against the federal government’s carbon tax that took effect this Spring.
Here in Manitoba, the U of M campuses essentially represent the province’s second largest city, and are positioned to be a leader in terms of creating a more sustainable future for all Manitobans, thereby helping to deliver the benefits that come along with it. Large amounts of research and numerous examples from around the world show that shifting toward a green economy holds the promise of not only a cleaner environment, but increases in jobs and productivity, better health outcomes, more functional communities, and less inequality. The caveat being that the shift requires political will.
This is especially true in our province, given how the Pallister government is playing politics on the environmental file. Having flip-flopped from initially favouring a flat-rate carbon tax as part of their own environmental strategy, they are now pursuing an ill-advised court challenge against the federal government’s carbon tax that took effect this Spring. Similar court challenges filed by Saskatchewan and Ontario have already been rejected. The pushback by the Pallister government comes despite the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business advocacy group, supporting a carbon tax and Ottawa committing to return 90% of the carbon tax revenue back to Manitoba households as tax rebates. Meanwhile, the remaining revenue will granted to the province for green initiatives in Manitoba, such as retrofitting schools with solar panels and better insulation – free money the Pallister government doesn’t seem to want either. The Government of Manitoba has also since downgraded its emissions reductions target to less than half of the 2.5 mega tonne reduction by 2022 that it had committed to in 2017.
In contrast, on June 25 the University’s Board of Governors passed the U of M’s Sustainability Strategy 2019-2023. The strategy is divided into three categories of focus: research and academics, campus life, and administration and operations. In total, the University has highlighted 14 goals that range widely, from “improving sustainable and active transportation modes” and “weaving Indigenous perspectives and cultures into our campuses” to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and “improve transparency and responsibility in University investments and governance”. These goals are broken down into 64 different commitments that the University pledges to complete or act upon by various intervals by the end of 2023.
Our newly created Sustainability Working Group was struck at our Board of Directors meeting on June 24, and is open to any UMSU member interested in joining.
Taken altogether, the strategy represents an ambitious plan to transform campus life, academics and operations at the U of M into more sustainable forms. It also lists key performance indicators that will be used to assess the University’s performance in meeting the targets it has laid out. However, as always, it will require consistent effort, action, and the allocation of all necessary resources to ensure aspirations on paper materialize into tangible change.
For our part, UMSU has also taken recent action to further sustainability on our campuses. Our newly created Sustainability Working Group was struck at our Board of Directors meeting on June 24, and is open to any UMSU member interested in joining.
The purpose of the working group is to examine current sustainability practices within UMSU and the U of M, and to advocate for sustainability to all three levels of government going forward. One of the primary aims will be to push for a composting system to be installed at the U of M which could possibly serve as a pilot project for how to create a municipally-administered organic waste pick-up program throughout Winnipeg (See article, ‘Composting: How to Capitalize on Waste’). Furthermore, the working group will be focused on holding the University to account on following through on its latest sustainability plan and will work with the U of M Office of Sustainability on joint initiatives such campaign weeks, a green events guide, and other potential areas of mutual interest. It is also mandated with developing and ratifying an UMSU’s first ever sustainability strategic plan.
The consequences of failing to shift toward a more sustainable future will affect everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, political stripes or geographical location. However, by working together, not only can we still avert a climate catastrophe, but we can achieve a more equal and just future for all. But only if we start, right now.
If you are interested in joining UMSU’s Sustainability Working Group, we encourage you to fill out this form. Or, if you have ideas for how we can improve sustainability within UMSU or on campus, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.