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.
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.
Due to current global scenarios, there is an opportunity for the University of Calgary to demonstrate significant leadership on climate. Poised and ready to steer the Alberta post-secondary community, University of Calgary can offer both visioning for the future as well as specific action-oriented steps to address climate change. To achieve such leadership, UCalgary would need to enact the following:
- ADVOCATE for the urgent need to act on climate change;
- ESTABLISH and CHAMPION policies and practices that specifically promote action on climate change;
- PROMOTE climate education and engagement of all students by expanding teaching about the social, political, cultural and biophysical dimensions of climate change;
- SUPPORT and ADVANCE transdisciplinary research into climate change;
- ENCOURAGE community engagement and indigenization in relation to climate change and climate justice.
This action statement emerges from a Calgary Institute for the Humanities’ working group (Communicating Around Climate Change, 2019-2021). In assessing the University of Calgary’s climate change initiatives, we offer the following specific recommendations to improve governance, education, research, and community outreach as inspired by the four pillars model used by Henderson, Bieler, & McKenzie (2017) in their examination of university policies addressing climate change across Canada.
PILLAR 1: Governance
The university has done an admirable job highlighting notions of sustainability at an institutional level. In fostering the development of an Institutional Sustainability Strategy with the attendant Frameworks focus, as well as embedding sustainability as a priority in strategic, academic and research plans, UCalgary demonstrates its openness to advancing the cause of sustainability on an administrative level. However, there are further steps that UCalgary needs to take to be a leader with regard to climate action. We recommend the following:
- Take a leadership stance on climate change by signing onto and enacting the principles of the Global Universities and Colleges Climate Letter, as well as by adopting specific climate-oriented ethical stances in key governance documents (Academic and Strategic Plans)
- Mobilize resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation;
- Prioritize climate change education, mitigation and adaptation as an institution in relation to research, pedagogy and outreach.
- Adopt ethical, non-contradictory and arms-length practices in relation to the corporate energy sector by divesting from fossil fuels in University-related investments and governance, and supporting research, teaching and outreach into just energy transitions
The above steps would facilitate the University of Calgary’s ability to realize its Growth Through Focus goals. Due to the impacts of the climate crisis across all sectors, the ‘grand challenge’ of the climate crisis necessitates a transdisciplinary, community-focused, and future-forward approach. By adopting an ethical focus with regard to climate action in governance documents, UCalgary can effectively realize its strategic vision.
PILLAR 2: Education
The University of Calgary has attempted to underline sustainability in its various curricula. For example, in addition to particular courses that address sustainability, at present, the institution has a Sustainability Certificate, a Campus Learning Lab Program with a focus on sustainability, and a Sustainability Summit. However, much more could be done to ensure students are exposed not only to notions of sustainability, but to the specifics of climate change. As such, we propose the following steps:
- Prioritize climate literacy for ALL students on campus. This could be done via instituting a Climate Change Literacy Workshop for all students (in first year, potentially during an orientation period). This intensive workshop could also be paired with a Climate Literacy Assessment in a later year to ensure students are engaging with climate issues in a deep and integrated manner. This particular action would be well-placed to be implemented through the Campus Learning Lab.
- Enact further climate literacy programs that build on the success of the Sustainability Certificate by creating programs, certificates and micro-credentials as well as graduate programs that have an innovative and specific focus on climate leadership and action.
- Implement courses that focus on climate action via immersive experiences. UCalgary does offer classes that specifically focus on climate change. However, by leveraging and orienting these studies towards greater community engagement with the various climate-oriented organizations in Calgary (Calgary Climate Hub, Pembina Institute, Green Calgary, Alberta Ecotrust, and more), students could be involved in immersive activities that could lead directly to employment opportunities upon graduation.
- Integrate climate change in curricula across campus. By working with individual Faculties across campus, instructors and faculty members could envision how climate issues (including the Sustainable Development Goals) relate to their own areas of study and then integrate modules addressing climate change into their syllabi. Then, by making use of the Inventory of Climate Change Courses, UCalgary could have a comprehensive understanding of how the study of climate change is being implemented pedagogically.
PILLAR 3: Research
Through the Growth Through Focus strategic vision, UCalgary has committed to support coordinated and transdisciplinary research across Faculties. The following actions could further UCalgary’s efforts to address climate change in the area of research:
- Create a transdisciplinary research centre with a focus on climate change
- Support evidence-based, theoretically-informed and policy-oriented research that dovetails with municipal, provincial and federal policy goals to realize UN climate commitments.
- Enhance local and place-based research into regional climate events and responses. In addition to supporting existing climate change research that has national or international relevance, further augment localized research initiatives that address climate-related impacts in Alberta and Canada.
PILLAR 4: Community outreach
The University of Calgary has an investment in indigenization as well as experiential learning that could offer a springboard for further community engagement. The following would strengthen UCalgary’s commitment to community outreach surrounding climate change:
- Enhance connections to Indigenous knowledge around ecological and climate justice. This would support commitments to the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
- Connect students and researchers on campus with climate action initiatives enacted by community groups. By offering opportunities for students and faculty to be exposed to and engage with community-based climate-focused groups, UCalgary could further student learning in the areas of climate action and leadership, as well as enhance research into grass roots efforts that effectively realize climate justice.
- Support and highlight community-based research initiatives taken by faculty and students. Faculty and students have been and are currently involved in myriad research-oriented community initiatives (often in conjunction with volunteer activities) that address climate change and climate justice. UCalgary could emphasize, build on, and publicize such efforts in order to inform and enhance climate research and pedagogy both on campus and in the community.
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.
Authored by the Calgary Institute for the Humanities’ working group, Communicating Around Climate Change: Interdisciplinary Conversations, including Gwendolyn Blue, Melanie Kloetzel and Ann-Lise Norman. April 16, 2021.