The Perito Moreno Glacier is a glacier located in the Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library.

Communicating Around Climate Change

Calgary Institute for the Humanities Interdisciplinary Research Group

Climate science is complicated and effectively communicating about the specifics of climate change for different populations is even more difficult. Such discussions, due to the fraught nature of impending changes as well as how intertwined such changes are with present political and socioeconomic realities, turn empirical research into a plaything for various factions, rather than a cornerstone for practical future planning. This description highlights a social need, that is, the need to deeply consider both the ways and means for communicating around the climate crisis as planetary transformations grow in both frequency and magnitude. Additionally, due to the diversity of experiences with respect to the climate crisis, it is important to understand the crisis via an interpretive social science and humanities (ISSH) perspective, which allows for highlighting issues of justice, gender, power, and identity. As researchers and educational leaders, university faculty members are uniquely positioned to address this social need. The working group, “Communicating around climate change: Interdisciplinary conversations”, would allow for a group of interdisciplinary researchers, positioned in Fine Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences to come together to consider this challenging situation.

Working Group Conveners:

Melanie Kloetzel (Associate Professor, School of Creative and Performing Arts – Dance), kloetzel@ucalgary.ca
Ann-Lise Norman (Professor, Physics & Astronomy and Environmental Science), alnorman@ucalgary.ca
Gwendolyn Blue (Associate Professor, Department of Geography), ggblue@ucalgary.ca

Photo Credit: The Perito Moreno Glacier is a glacier located in the Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library.

Visioning the Future: University of Calgary’s Potential for Climate Leadership

Climate change is swiftly becoming the defining issue of the twenty-first century. We are currently facing intertwined crises including mass species extinction, global heating, growing inequality, eroding public institutions, financial instability, and the prospect of an increasingly unliveable planet. Countries must adopt proactive stances in order to prepare their citizens, their economies, and their policies for rapidly changing current and future circumstances. In turn, public institutions and policy makers have an obligation to inform and protect their citizens from threats to their health and well-being. As publicly funded centres, universities have the expertise and capacity, as well as responsibility, to deliver socially- and sustainably-conscious research.

Alberta is at a juncture with respect to visioning its future due to radical changes to the energy mix as well as rising social awareness of the severity of climate change. Rather than waiting on the periphery of such debates, the University of Calgary can play a leadership role, helping to pivot the province toward a more sustainable and equitable future.

In some regards, the University of Calgary has already adopted significant measures in responding to climate change. In signing onto the University and College Presidents’ Climate Change Statement of Action for Canada (CCSAC) in 2008, as well as in developing a specific Climate Action Plan in 2010 (renewed in 2019) (https://www.ucalgary.ca/sustainability/strategy/climate-action-plan), the University of Calgary has demonstrated its intention to be innovative and forward-thinking. In its Climate Action Plan, the University of Calgary details its intention to be a carbon neutral campus by 2050, an important measure and one that acts as a model for other institutions. As this document notes, “[b]etween 2019 and 2030 is a critical time for transformation action” (p. 4, UCalgary Climate Action Plan summary). As a signatory to the CCSAC, the university has also taken an important symbolic step that commits the university to actions that address climate change.

While we recognize such efforts by U Calgary to be a leader in sustainability in academic and engagement programs, we also see substantial room for growth and a scaling of ambition.

Research conducted into university policy and climate change across Canada (Henderson, Bieler, McKenzie, 2017) shows both the strength of measures already proposed by the University of Calgary, as well as potential areas for growth. Specifically, Henderson, Bieler, and McKenzie demonstrate that while institutional responses - including those at the University of Calgary - tend to focus on campus operations and infrastructure, universities across Canada tend to be remiss in addressing the climate crisis in four main areas: governance, education, research, and community outreach (p 12).

Using Henderson, Bieler, McKenzie as a model, we outline four pillars that we see as particularly relevant for strengthening UCalgary’s climate action. 

PILLAR 1: Governance

In developing a Climate Action Plan, the University of Calgary has shown commendable leadership; indeed, the plan helps establish the idea of a sustainable trajectory for the institution, one which can help UCalgary become a model for other publicly funded institutions. Yet, the Climate Action Plan depicts only a first step in addressing the crisis as it focuses solely on campus infrastructure and emissions. There is no mention of education, research or community outreach as key players for a climate action plan, a situation that can and should be remedied to maintain UCalgary’s leadership position in response to climate change.

While addressing the management of energy consumption and emissions is important, the University of Calgary must move beyond a focus on infrastructure and campus operations and recognize that climate change has significant impacts on social, cultural, economic and political arenas across the board. As such, the university should seize the opportunity to adopt rhetorical and ethical stances within governance documents, such as Strategic Plans, that prioritize climate change education, mitigation and adaptation in the areas of research, pedagogy and outreach.

One example of a governance initiative that can act as a model comes from Queen’s University, where their development of a Sustainability Strategic Framework has allowed the university to figure sustainable practices as a moral obligation; this document is premised on the idea that universities are ethical players who can actively address cultural assumptions that lead to ecological degradation. As it states in this framework:

At a basic level, sustainability refers to the survival of our planet and its life forms. The human community’s ability to support itself into the future has become contentious as evidence mounts that many current practices are unsustainable. As we witness the depletion of non-renewable resources, rising pollution levels, increasing global heating, and severe impacts on wildlife habitat and larger ecosystems (which are growing less diverse and/or degraded), we also witness the consequences of undermining conditions for healthy living—today and into the future. (QU, Sustainability Strategic Framework, 2010, p. 3)

University of Calgary can similarly adopt such an approach, taking a leadership role amongst universities in western Canada. While many are fearful of the changes that will take place in the coming decades, UCalgary can model an innovative approach. By investing in governance structures that take a holistic approach to the climate crisis as well as by prioritizing the crisis in its planning documents, UCalgary can demonstrate its capacity and wherewithal to assist society in its transition to a new normal.

PILLAR 2: Curriculum and Education

The University of Calgary has a particularly important role to play in terms of dissemination of information about climate change to its student body. As we are responsible for preparing students for a future on this planet, it is the university’s duty to offer evidence-based information that can outline likely impacts of climate change on individuals, society and the planet as a whole.

As such, the University of Calgary should take specific steps to incorporate climate change education across the curriculum. Many educators at UCalgary already offer courses that address climate change, but much more needs to be done to ensure that students across all faculties access such information.

The Climate Action Plan at the University of Saskatchewan (2012) offers one model for consideration. This plan includes the following institutional actions to address climate change education/curriculum:

1. Inventory of Climate-Change-Related Courses, Programs & Research

2. Climate Action Courses & Immersive Experiences

3. Campus Living Lab Program

4. Integration of Climate Change in Curriculum

5. Climate-Change Literacy Assessment

6. Climate Change Library Collections

7. Annual Sustainability Summit

(U of S Climate Action Plan, 2012, pp. 10–11)

Like at U of S, University of Calgary currently holds a sustainability summit, has a certificate in sustainability studies, and maintains an inventory of sustainability related courses. However, there are other practical and achievable steps that can be taken at UCalgary to address the deficit in climate change education. One potential action that is both achievable and impactful, for example, would be to include a climate change literacy workshop for all students, either in their first year at the university, or during the orientation. Yet, other substantial actions would also be warranted across the curriculum to address the gap in students’ climate literacy.

PILLAR 3: Research

The University of Calgary presently champions research that will help foster the transition to new energy futures. Much of this research focus has been directed towards engineering and physical sciences, or towards more conventional forms of social science that promote economic development.

Henderson, Bieler, and McKenzie (2017) note the potential for UCalgary’s leadership in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary climate change research when they state that the “University of Calgary (UC) highlights teaching and research developments across a variety of institutional subunits, ranging from environmental design and law to business and STEM-related programs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)” (p. 17).

Evidence of such interdisciplinary research can be seen, for example, in the Calgary Institute for Humanities (CIH) working groups, but also in the list of research initiatives below:

  • CIH working groups
    • Energy in Society (Petra Dolata)
    • Communicating around Climate Change (Melanie Kloetzel)
  • Aerosols, Climate, Air Quality and Soil carbon dioxide sequestration (Ann-Lise Norman, NSERC)
  • Public deliberation, environmental justice, impact and social assessments of emerging technologies (Gwendolyn Blue - SSHRC, Genome Canada)
  • Site-based performance and climate change (Melanie Kloetzel - Canada Council for the Arts)
  • Social work and social justice (Mishka Lysack)
  • Alternative food systems (Marit Rosol - CRC, SSHRC)
  • Economics and climate change (Trevor Tombe, Jennifer Winter)
  • Alternative Energy production, distribution, life-cycle assessment (David Wood, Warren Piers, Joule Bergerson)
  • Ecological systems and biodiversity (Paul Galpern, Ed Johnson, Mary Reid, Mathis Natvik)
  • Hydrological research collaborations (John Pomeroy, Water Resources and Climate Change (UofS and BGS), Misaki Hayashi)
  • Collaborative research across arts and sciences in the Anthropocene (Christine Brubaker, URGC)  

Yet, as critics such as the SSHRC-funded Corporate Mapping Project highlight, the University of Calgary has extensive ties with fossil fuel companies through research partnerships, corporate-sponsored scholarships and board members who are also executives for fossil fuel companies. Such connections can dampen transformative research initiatives and/or limit the extent to which University of Calgary could adopt climate change as a research priority.

The urgency of the crisis that is unfolding requires much more emphasis on transdisciplinary research across and within disciplines. While research into technological innovations is certainly helpful, such research is inherently limited and more attention needs to be given to connections across disciplines, including the ecological sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. By adopting such a transdisciplinary approach, U of C could position itself to foster responsible research and innovation that would benefit all areas of society, ensuring that ethical, social and even aesthetic angles be taken into consideration alongside technological and industrial developments.

Making climate research a cornerstone of the university’s Eyes High Strategy would be an important first step. This would demonstrate bold leadership and would position UCalgary as an institution that meets upcoming challenges with a forward-thinking approach. Both the City of Calgary and University of Calgary often cite the high academic achievements of the populace as well as the level-headed, innovative, and problem-solving attitudes that have been the drivers of success in the past. By applying such attitudes in combination with the research excellence at UCalgary, the university can act as a visionary with respect to the climate crisis.

Other Universities have bridged disciplinary boundaries in order to prioritize climate research. For some, this has resulted in significant gains in applying an interdisciplinary focus to the climate crisis. For example, University of Waterloo’s Institute for Sustainability and Water Institute as well as the Department of Knowledge Integration broach the problems of breadth within the climate crisis, highlighting the need to integrate research in the sciences, social sciences and the arts. University of Waterloo has also taken the important step of elevating this institute to a University Research Centre, ensuring that requisite funding gets channeled to critical research initiatives undertaken at the centre. The University of Alberta integrates our understanding of changing Arctic climate and hydrology. University of Victoria has a long-established Climate Justice network. Such models offer some solid initial steps, but it is certainly conceivable to envision UCalgary building on or developing its climate research agendas beyond such preliminary efforts and offering exceptional climate research leadership both across the disciplines and across the nation.

PILLAR 4: Communication & Community outreach

In their Climate Action Plan 2012–2016, the University of Winnipeg situates universities as responsible for catalyzing change within the larger society; it states that universities should be “bold enough to take risks” (p. 10) in order to show how others can be sustainability leaders. Henderson, Bieler, and McKenzie (2017) also highlight the University of Calgary’s Climate Action Plan for its stated intent to share information on best practices and leadership in relation to climate change with external media sources (p. 17).

While these are both admirable intentions and can certainly help encourage universities to function as innovators in relation to the climate crisis, the attitudinal premise is one that needs amending in order to demonstrate a more open, respectful and horizontal relationship between the university and other community stakeholders. As Henderson, Bieler, and McKenzie note, universities need to adopt a “more collaborative approach to community outreach within the institution in relation to climate change action” (p. 17). They point to University of Saskatchewan’s efforts to involve multiple stakeholders, including the City of Saskatoon as a formal partner, in tackling such action plans, but they also note that this is very unusual at the institutional level.

Certainly, some initial efforts have been made in the past year in relation to such diversification of communication and community outreach. The Office of Sustainability continues to search for new methods of communication, and the efforts by the FutureU group to partner with the Regeneration Society to launch the Moving Mountains Confluence (which, due to Covid, was postponed) were positive attempts to engage with the community in alternative (i.e. not top-down) ways. Individual faculty members also find methods for, among others, creating and sharing climate-related art projects, beginning climate-oriented community organizations, and embedding academic experts in various climate-focused municipal and/or community groups. Such efforts prioritize dialoguing directly with community members to explore best practices and policies, an endeavour that could use more support at the institutional level. By building on such initiatives and supporting others in this vein, UCalgary can offer a model of best practices for other institutions to emulate.

University Climate Action Plans

Queen’s University (2010). Sustainability Strategic Framework. Kingston, ON: Queen’s University.

University of Calgary (2010). Climate Action Plan. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary.

University of Saskatchewan (2012). Climate Action Plan. Saskatoon, SK: University of Saskatchewan.

University of Winnipeg (2012). Climate Action Plan 2012–2016. Winnipeg, MB: University of Winnipeg.

References

Corporate Mapping Project. Available at https://www.corporatemapping.ca/profiles/university-of-calgary/. Last accessed June 16, 2020. 

Henderson, J., Bieler, A.  McKenzie, M. 2016. Climate change and the Canadian higher education system: An institutional policy analysis. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 47 (1): 1 - 26.