Acknowledging climate justice in the EOAS department is a ‘good first step’ but is it enough?

Michelle Marcus, a 2021 environmental sciences alum, didn’t learn about climate justice from her required coursework — instead she learned from extracurriculars like Climate Justice UBC and elective courses.

But for a university and department renowned for climate action and research, she quickly recognized some contradictions.

“On the one hand, the department is training students and supporting researchers to learn about environmental issues and how to solve them,” she said. “On the other hand, they’re training students and supporting researchers to extract from the environment and, in a way, intensify these environmental issues through mining and fossil fuel exploration.”

So Marcus, and later other students, wrote an open letter to earth, oceans and atmospheric science (EOAS) department head Dr. Philippe Tortell, demanding the department to implement the Indigenous Strategic Plan, integrate social justice into undergraduate and graduate curricula, increase transparency and abolish partnerships not aligned with climate justice, with a specific focus on mining partnerships.

This open letter came during a wave of activism and institutional promises at UBC. In 2021, UBC released the Climate Emergency Task Force (CETF) report, outlining nine recommendations for the university’s accelerated climate response following its 2019 climate emergency declaration.

Shortly after, with the initiative of students, EOAS released a departmental-specific plan to address the climate crisis and be fully compliant with UBC’s 2019 declaration. This plan outlined how they would incorporate broad climate education departmentally, encourage more climate science communication, have partnerships that reflect sustainable industry practices and be carbon-neutral by 2030.

Nearly three years later, their progress is limited but in motion.

The department is currently focused on two of the nine CETF recommendations: priority four, “which [is] directed towards expanding, strengthening, and centering climate research at UBC” and priority seven, “which aims to expand climate education opportunities and resources for the UBC community and broader public,” according to a statement sent to The Ubyssey from Tortell and assistant professor and chair of the EOAS Climate Emergency Committee Dr. Rachel White.

Compared to the rest of the recommendations, these two have less of an explicit focus on climate justice. EOAS students like Marcus are trying to change that.

Since Marcus graduated, sixth-year environmental science and computer science student Chloe Curry is one of the students now leading this cause. She met with Tortell last spring to discuss their demands from their open letter.

At this meeting, Curry said they and other students learned that the EOAS Climate Emergency Committee was working on other goals from the letter, though not in publicly shared initiatives.

“So we’re not trying to fight for these changes. It’s more like ‘Here are the changes we want to see’ and there are people within the department who are super willing to try and help us make that change,” Curry said.

Why climate justice?

The US EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

Climate justice specifically focuses on the unequal impacts of climate change.

So why is that important for environmental sciences?

“Climate impacts are never just determined by physical variables,” said Dargan Frierson, an associate professor in the University of Washington’s atmospheric sciences’ department who spoke at an EOAS seminar addressing environmental justice in the earth sciences. “As physical scientists, I think we always have to remember this. There’s always social factors underneath.”

“If we want to solve environmental problems, we need to understand the root causes and the root causes, frankly, are capitalism and colonialism. And there’s no way to pretend that those aren’t relevant,” said Marcus. She is currently working on national fossil fuel divestment with Change Course.

The North American Association of Environmental Education even outlines environmental justice as a key component for environmental education. A 2022 study from Texas University noted that the incorporation of environmental justice in hard science-based environmental courses will better prepare students for environmental challenges they will face in their careers.

Indigenous environmental activism is an important branch of this topic. The aims of the environmental justice and Indigenous land sovereignty movements overlap in many ways, particularly around extractivist practices on Indigenous land. Marcus noted that many environmental science graduates go on to work as environmental consultants for said extractivist activities.

“You’re conducting research or environmental monitoring on land that isn’t yours [and] that you’ve settled on. I feel like that aspect is so important and so crucial,” said Arshia Uppal, a third-year environmental sciences student who sits on the EAOS Climate Emergency Committee.

Uppal said she finds it shocking that her EOAS classes barely acknowledge colonialism, let alone give students the tools to start to rectify it.

‘Sustainable’ partnerships

The third demand in the open letter revolved around EOAS’ approach to partnerships and a just transition away from fossil fuels.

It asked the department to be transparent about partnerships, funding and donations and to “phase out all financial contributions from fossil fuel companies that are not aligned with [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and 1.5°C climate targets.”

The 1.5° C climate target is a benchmark used as a commitment to limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5°C compared to preindustrial times — a greater increase could lead to permanent and devastating environmental consequences.

This is further supported by the CETF report, which calls for the university to establish climate justice standards for working partnerships and to “fully divest from fossil fuel across all asset classes by 2025.”

According to the report, “climate justice cannot be limited to supporting new projects but must also involve phasing out harmful initiatives.”

Divestment, the process of publicly condemning organizations and withdrawing funds or associations, is a successful way to damage the reputation of fossil fuel companies, said Marcus.

UBC committed to divesting fossil fuels from its endowment but that didn’t include other ties to fossil fuels, including research partnerships or donations for scholarships.

“By continuing to invest in this industry and accept donations and partner with this industry, the university is giving them credibility, giving them legitimacy,” said Marcus. “By accepting research funds and partnering on research, [the department is] helping these companies to improve technology so that they can further cause the harms that they’re causing.”

However, divestment from fossil-fuel funding for research is no easy task. A2022 UBC research study found that $18.9 million has been given to UBC researchers partnering on research with fossil fuel corporations.

“There have been conversations in the committee of ‘How can we dissolve these partnerships? Is that even possible? Is it realistic?’” Uppal said.

The study also found the EOAS department received the most funding by a margin of over $7 million.

“These things are kind of touchy and that dynamic needs to be addressed,” said Uppal. “I think people need to realize that we can’t just keep considering [these partnerships] as [the] norm when they’re actively hurting different communities, when they’re worsening the climate crisis.”

“[Fossil fuel companies] are also contributing to issues of environmental racism, particularly in Indigenous communities, but also communities of colour all around the globe, who live in sacrifice zones and really have to bear the brunt of not just the effects of climate change, but the effects of the environmental pollution from fossil fuel development,” said Marcus.

Tortell and White said the department works with the University-Industry Liaison Office (UILO) during development of research proposals for partnerships or industry-funded research.

The UILO reviews proposals to be consistent with UBC’s values, including “upholding the principles of academic freedom, which protects individual researchers’ freedom to select projects and collaborators without external or non-academic constraints,” they wrote.

‘A good first step’

The first two demands on the open letter address including climate justice and diverse perspectives in curricula.

“If UBC wants to be producing good environmental scientists that are going to be really addressing these critical issues, and doing it in ways that are respectful of communities that they’re working with, then it’s really critical that climate justice is added to the curriculum,” said Marcus.

Curry said although some professors do land acknowledgements, it is only a first step. A next one could be inviting guest lecturers with expertise to teach classes or workshops.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily the professor’s fault if they’re not comfortable speaking of something that’s outside of their main domain of expertise, but I do think it’s their responsibility to handle the topic gracefully and bring it up and talk about it,” said Curry.

Notably, students across different universities have been asking for climate justice education.

A study from Dalhousie University found that students in environmental-focuses courses highly value environmental justice education and want to see more justice content, with a specific focus on the impacts of colonialism. Frierson teaches an introductory course on climate justice in the physical sciences, which has been popular among students at the University of Washington.

“I think students very much want to hear things taught from a justice perspective,” he said.

The Dalhousie study also highlighted the various ways that climate justice could be brought into hard-science based classrooms including guest speakers, assignments, lectures and readings.

“There’s all sorts of different ways that you can bring [justice] into quantitative endeavors.” Frierson added.

The EOAS department is recognizing and responding to students in this regard. The EOAS Climate Emergency Committee, along with students involved in the open letter, are working to create a “crash course” for climate justice, according to Curry.

They also hope to do curriculum mapping to find out where to most efficiently incorporate different aspects of climate justice into required courses for the seven different EOAS programs.

“We don’t really know where climate justice is being spoken about,” said Curry. “So [curriculum mapping] is a good first step to just actually get [a] solid idea of what’s going on within the department.”

Tortell and White stated the department is developing new classes “to expand climate science education opportunities for diverse audiences.” Uppal also said she is working to incorporate climate justice into classes of various professors who expressed interest in the content, but didn’t know where to start.

“I think now the department is slowly realizing that climate justice is applicable to the work they do,” said Uppal. “It’s just a matter of taking action on it now instead of just having constant discussions about it and those discussions going nowhere.”

Science editor Tova Gaster was involved in the 2022 study outlining fossil fuel donations to UBC research. She was not involved in the writing or editing of this piece.