While many universities have organized their approaches to climate action around greening their campuses and supporting “sustainable development”, students increasingly expect them to do more. It is no surprise that the generation of students who grew up amid movements for racial justice and decolonization, like #BlackLivesMatter and #LandBack, has voiced concerns that mainstream climate solutions don’t go far enough in challenging the status quo. Concerned that these solutions will worsen social inequities and deepen colonial relations, these students are calling for more than climate action – they are calling for climate justice. If universities ignore these calls, they may be increasingly considered not only out of touch, but also irresponsible in the face of a growing recognition that capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy are root causes of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other ecological crises.
Indigenous and Black thinkers have long argued that ecological crises and colonial violence have the same point of origin: the global political-economic system that was initiated with the onset of European colonization and chattel slavery in the 15th century. They suggest that while this system has taken on different forms over time, it continues to reproduce racialized structures of capital accumulation and uneven vulnerability to ecological crises. As a result, the whiter, wealthier parts of the world that have contributed the most to climate change are the most buffered from its negative effects. Conversely, the Global South and marginalized communities in the Global North that have contributed the least suffer the worst impacts and have the least material resources and institutional power to protect themselves from these impacts. The knowledge these communities hold about the effects of a changing climate on their local ecosystems, and the regenerative responses they propose, have been largely ignored. Instead, their lands are treated as “sacrifice zones” in the name of climate solutions that seek to enable whiter, wealthier nations and communities to maintain their resource- and energy-intensive lifestyles (e.g. through carbon offset schemes and lithium mining for electric car batteries).
In response, advocates of climate justice suggest that climate action must go beyond “business as usual, but greener.” Many advocates call for interrupting exploitative and extractive social relations, as well as committing to reparation and redistribution in recognition of the intergenerational debts that are owed to communities on the frontlines of the climate and nature emergency. These critical perspectives have attracted growing attention. For instance, the latest IPCC report recognized colonialism as a driver of climate change. Meanwhile, a recent report from the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance concluded, “there can be no meaningful mitigation or resolution of the global ecological crisis without specific action to address systemic racism, in particular the historic and contemporary racial legacies of colonialism and slavery.”
What does this have to do with universities?
Universities are often understood to have a unique role in catalyzing climate action in society. But there is more than one way they can do this. On the one hand, universities must create space for conversations that welcome many different visions about their role in enabling possible futures in the face of the climate and nature emergency. On the other hand, the visions for the future that tend to take up the most space in these conversations are the ones that would sustain the status quo, such as those narrowly focused on identifying technical fixes.
If universities continue to sideline more power-conscious and complexity-based perspectives on the climate and nature emergency, including those offered by Indigenous Peoples and critical scholars in the social science and humanities, their climate action risks reproducing simplistic solutions, enacting unequal and paternalistic relationships with systemically marginalized communities, and educating people into the same Eurocentric and profit-centred paradigm of human progress and development that created today’s ecological crises.
Efforts to amplify more critical climate perspectives on our campuses are met with varied responses, including indifference and in some cases, active resistance. This resistance cannot be explained by a lack of supporting evidence, given that a growing body of research across various knowledge fields documents the connections between racism, colonialism, capitalism, and climate change (including the aforementioned IPCC and UN reports). So why does it arise? One way to understand this resistance is that acknowledging these connections and considering their implications means confronting the possibility that our current political-economic system cannot be made sustainable or equitable. Since universities are dependent on and entangled with this system, many of us who work in higher education remain invested in this system’s continuity, even if we also know this likely means reproducing local and global relationships grounded in colonial violence and ecological destruction. Yet as the former president of Sterling College, Matthew Derr, has observed, students are insisting that universities’ “contributions to the cataclysmic effects of climate change are manifestly obvious and their objections will not be placated by the green-washing of our campuses and tepid promises about sustainability.”
Reorienting university climate action toward climate justice will not be easy. Even at institutions like my own that have committed to climate justice, there is a long road ahead. To move in this direction, faculty, staff, and students alike would need to not only expand our intellectual capacities but also deepen the affective (emotional) and relational capacities that would enable us to navigate difficult, complex realities in more self-implicating and socially and ecologically accountable ways. This includes facing the uncomfortable truth that we and our institutions are complicit in racial and colonial violence and ecological degradation – including through the ongoing occupation of and extraction from Indigenous lands, and the creation of knowledge that “undermines the conditions of possibility for our biophysical survival.”
As Gä̀gala- ƛiƛetko (Nadia Joe), co-senior project manager of the UBC Climate Emergency Response, suggests, the idea that climate justice work can be both transformative and easy is a fantasy. Thus, we would also need to develop the stamina to stay with these difficulties, complexities, and complicities over the long haul. If we approached this work as an ongoing inquiry that is focused on ensuring the quality of our collective learning and the integrity of our relationships as we move together, rather than arriving at a predefined destination, we may be less likely to feel overwhelmed, immobilized, or seek comfort, certainty, and quick fixes.
What might this look like in practice?
In the context of teaching, it could mean offering students a more critically engaged climate education. Rather than encouraging students to seek guaranteed solutions or imposing a prescriptive path forward, this would prepare them to ask their own critically informed, self-reflexive questions (including considering different perspectives on what “climate justice” means), and to make their own decisions about what constitutes relevant and responsible climate action in their specific contexts. For instance, students might be invited to assess the extent to which different proposed climate solutions and different approaches to problem-solving respect the rights of nature, human rights, and Indigenous sovereignty. They could also be encouraged to assess the extent to which their own imagined climate futures are accountable to the well-being of current and coming generations of all species, and to consider how communities on the frontlines might approach the future in different ways. In fact, many students are already asking these questions, and they are pushing for faculty to ask them, too.
In the context of research, we could start by inviting faculty to ask how their own disciplines and institutions are implicated in colonial violence, ecological extraction, and epistemicide. This inquiry could emphasize learning from mistakes and failures so that we do not continue repeating them, as well as asking how we might enact repair for previous harms. After all, there is little hope for the possibility of contributing to climate justice if we cannot face the ways that we have contributed to climate injustice. Faculty could also be encouraged to consider what might become possible if they traded competition for collaboration and grounded those collaborations in trust, respect, reciprocity, accountability, and consent – while recognizing that these mean different things to different people. Finally, faculty could be invited to step back from investments in epistemic authority and instead step toward epistemic humility so that we would be better prepared to coordinate justice-oriented responses to complex challenges in ways that ethically draw upon the wisdom of multiple disciplines and knowledge systems.
More people are pointing to the limits of mainstream climate action, concerned that it will reproduce social and ecological harm in the present and compromise the possibility of liveable futures. As geography scholar Sarah Hunt/Tłaliłila’ogwa suggests, “Without confronting colonial norms within our institutions and disciplines…climate action risks replicating the oppressive structures of power that got us into this mess in the first place.” Thus far, most universities have chosen not to respond to these critiques, but as climate destabilization intensifies and social unrest proliferates, there will likely come a time when they no longer have a choice.
Sharon Stein is an assistant professor at the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia and a visiting professor at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa.