Climate change: The Universities’ and Canada’s roles

In November I delivered an address on “The Ecological Debt” to the annual GreenAccord conference for environmental journalists in Naples, Italy. One of the attendees subsequently wrote me for more detail on some of the issues this talk raised about climate change. Here are my responses to her questions:

1) As an academic and an ecologist, what do you expect from this latest round of talks? [The COP19 Climate Change Meetings in Warsaw]

As an academic (human) ecologist, I expect nothing concrete from this meeting. (By ‘concrete’, I mean a binding plan which would require, for example, wealthy countries to begin carbon emissions reductions at the rate of 6%-10% per year, as necessary to avoid catastrophic warming.) Despite the best efforts of committed individuals and those nations suffering the brunt of climate change impacts, the COP sessions do not deal seriously with either the social justice or ecological implications of climate change. Vested interests ensure that they really emphasize short-term economics and politics and thus grossly discount the increasing probability of truly horrendous future costs. In effect, the meetings are really about ways to maintain (un)economic growth in the face of contrary evidence and finding ways to delay the hard decisions until the next round of talks.

[P.S. Uneconomic growth means growth in which the overall costs exceed the benefits. Unfortunately, if the benefits accrue to the present generation and the already privileged, and the social/ecological costs are borne by future generations and the powerless, then there is little incentive for today’s decision-makers to do the morally or even economically correct thing.]


2)  What role, if any, can universities play in future climate change conferences?

Some university-based meteorological departments are doing an excellent job on climate science, of course, but most academic scientists are trained to eschew politics and even to avoid interpretation of the policy relevance of their research findings. (This would allegedly introduce value judgments that sully the pure science.) James Hansen, formerly of Columbia University and NASA in the US, and Kevin Anderson and  Alice Bows of the UK’s Tyndal Centre are notable exceptions who break the rule. I believe that If other academic climate-change scholars followed their example, the public would be better informed and the world would be better off.

Of course, the university’s role in climate-related policy debates is potentially much broader than generating technical reports. In theory, universities could be a major force in informing public discourse in the development of wide-ranging economic, social and ecological public policy in response to climate change. In my view, and again recognizing that the exceptions, universities are failing in this role (and the situation is getting worse).

Members of the public often think that universities are beacons of reason that help determine the moral and intellectual frameworks through which society acts out in the world. More often, today, rather than helping to shape these frames, universities — whose untied funding is drying up — merely reflect society’s prevailing values and world-view.

In contrast, private sector think-tanks dedicated to anti-science and climate-change denial have had a huge impact on public opinion and therefore on the motivation of (at least North American) politicians and policy-makers at COP meetings. These organizations are extraordinarily well-funded by corporate interests, especially in the US (hundreds of $millions in recent decades)

Note that our entire cultural narrative (the western ‘world-view’) is increasingly formed by corporate values. This is particularly so as public funding for higher education is gradually being replaced by corporate sponsorships, university-private-sector partnerships and so-called mission-oriented research (even public funding is increasingly contingent on researchers demonstrating the positive economic spin-offs of their work). Economic departments continue to churn out neoliberal economists brandishing theory devoid of social, real human behavioural or ecological content, the same theories that have helped generate our twin crises of increasing inequity and ecological decay (including climate change). There is little or no funding available for ecological economics or other serious alternatives to the mainstream paradigm that incorporate more comprehensive models of reality.

In effect, therefore, many universities are becoming subsidized research arms of the private sector including fossil fuel industries, drug companies and agro-tech multinationals. (See the scandals at UC Berkeley involving Monsanto, for example). Research funding pours in to support industrial agricultural technologies (with potential for privatiseable intellectual property rights) while there is virtually nothing available to support the knowledge-intensive agro-ecology that we really need to conserve ecosystems and reduce agriculture’s contribution to climate change (industrial agriculture accounts for a large percentage of GHG emissions.)

More generally, money-making departments (micro-biology, medicine, solid-state physics, etc.) thrive while departments of language, culture, philosophy, systematics, ecology (disciplines we need better to humanize the world and understand our role in biophysical systems) wither on the academic vine.

So entrenched are corporate values generally that students who used to go to university to become better citizens now attend to improve their job prospects and earning power. Incidentally, I suspect the corporate emphasis on individual success and ruthless competition has tended to legitimize the plagiarism and other forms of cheating that now seem more common on our campuses.


3) What is your opinion of Canada’s contribution to the talks?

Canada is largely a barrier to progress at COP19. Consistent with what I have written above, national energy and economic policies (and therefore climate policy) are based on short-term, opportunistic economic considerations that translate into developing and exporting the nation’s oil, gas and coal reserves. We are, I believe, the only nation to withdraw formally from the Kyoto agreement as there was no chance of meeting our commitments under that accord.

It is an open secret that Canada’s policies have been virtually dictated by fossil (in both senses of the word) industrial lobbyists who have also succeeded in gutting Canada’s Fisheries Act (particularly habitat protection), the Environmental Assessment Act and other legislation and policies that are perceived as barriers to rapid development of fossil energy reserves. Harper’s conservative government does not willingly discuss climate change or its long-term implications at home and misrepresents Canadians’ popular opinion abroad. For example, Harper, unlike former Canadian Prime Ministers, has not allowed opposition members of the House to attend COP19 as part of the Canadian delegation. (Hon. Elizabeth May, the only Canadian opposition member present, is there as part of the Afghani delegation, I believe.)  As a result of all this, Canada has become something of an international climate change pariah.

I should note that these policies are the product of a neo-con government elected by something like a quarter of the voting age population. [Canada has a multi-party first-past-the-post electoral system that frequently results in minority governments.] Public opinion polls show that many oil and gas initiatives, particularly pipeline and tanker shipping proposals impacting the west coast are opposed by a majority of the population.