The rise of the student climate revolution

Written by Allison Gacad, Canada
Allison Gacad is a freelance journalist and third year Global Resource Systems student at the University of British Columbia.

In France, a conservative political economy was toppled by the events of the May 68 student revolution, which gave rise to the women’s liberation and gay rights movements. In the United States, collective youth resistance to the Vietnam war empowered protests to conscription, most notably the burning of draft cards. The power of thousands of young people uniting to say – this is our future, we will dictate how it will unfold – is impossible to ignore. Today, as the world barrels towards the conflict of a 2 degree rise in global temperature, the same urgency among students is only beginning to surface to public consciousness.

On March 15, 2019, students across the globe decided to skip school to protest political apathy on climate change. Led by the 16 year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, over 1 million people around the world went on strike to call attention to the stagnancy in government climate action.

However, protest remains to be only one piece of the puzzle, particularly because the student protesters are not representative of the complete reality of the effects of climate change. Those who currently experience climate migration, natural disasters, and dwindling natural resources do not have the opportunity to take the time out of their day to protest. “I grew up in Honduras, in Central America: it’s a very hurricane prone part of the world. And when there’s a hurricane or any natural disaster, it’s very clear how justice is connected. The first people who are affected are the ones living in informal housing,” says Adriana Laurent Seibt, a fifth-year Global Resource Systems student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada.

“My frustration with the [climate] movement in general is that there isn’t enough of an intersectional justice lens. And I think that needs to be the centre of the conversation rather than the last thought.”

Adriana Laurent Seibt

“Even within Canada, if you’re thinking about say, the wildfires, it’s disproportionately impacting Indigenous communities,” she emphasizes. Her frustration led her to join a group of students at UBC who are taking a justice-centred approach to climate action through the conscious weaving of marginalized communities into the climate discussion, who are often left out of the conversation. In 2018, they founded an initiative called the UBC Climate Hub , which is a unique space for the community to launch climate action projects with the support of the university’s network and administrative resources. “I think we have to ask universities to become institutions that are stepping up on climate, because we’re failing at a lot of other levels… universities have the resources to make a huge difference on climate,” says Grace Nosek, founding Climate Hub Member and PhD student in the Faculty of Law at UBC.

The Climate Hub, staffed by a coordinator and small team of students, allows students with climate action ideas to execute them with the support of the university. Although the Climate Hub is based at UBC, it is always keen to connect and work with community organizations and individuals. “A student came to us with this idea for a climate ambassador workshop in high schools. and because we have these resources, we could do a lot of that administrative work and then we could connect that student with all of these other stakeholders to help bring that idea to life,” said Nosek. This is supplemented with other programming such as a Climate Mentorship program that groups interested students into thematic ‘pods’ such as Food & Climate Change, Art & Climate Change, and Urban Resilience & Climate Change, with relevant staff, faculty, and community connections. These pods meet weekly to discuss current issues and potential projects for the year. Throughout the year, the Climate Hub also hosts public events which allows for community members to explore multidisciplinary climate work, such as a showcase of climate solutions.

A selection of questions posed by the UBC Climate Hub at their Climate Solutions Showcase Event. Courtesy of the UBC Climate Hub.

A key element of the Climate Hub is the recognition that there is no singular, superior method to pursue climate action. “I’ve been part of groups that emphasize students to take individual actions, to make changes in their lifestyle… I’ve also been part of groups that encourage direct action, creating change through protest,” says Shakti Ramkumar, founding Climate Hub member and fifth year Geography student. However, the Climate Hub is meant to be a space that allows for unity in those methods: “… to unify all of the disparate elements that are working on climate research, all of the student groups that are working on climate… We wanted there to be a central space for them to collaborate, for them to amplify each other’s actions.” Often, climate change is viewed as an issue for solely scientists to solve. The Climate Hub seeks to challenge that notion. “This is an issue for anyone across any spectrum: the poets, the musicians, the students studying gender, race, sexuality, and social justice issues,” emphasizes Nosek. Looking to next year, Climate Hub staff are working on a number of new projects such as the Climate Justice Collaborative, a climate justice focused research opportunity. “Undergraduates will have the opportunity to work with communities and staff while being mentored by graduate students on research projects related to climate justice on a local or global level,” says Laurent Seibt, who is also a current work-learn student at the Climate Hub.

The irony is that universities accept the science of climate change and support initiatives such as the Climate Hub, yet many continue to invest in fossil fuel companies which contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. Following the activism of student groups calling for divestment from fossil fuels, the Board of Governors at the UBC pledged $10 million dollars to “low-carbon emissions and high equity ESG funds”, but this remains to be only 1% of its total endowment. Although some universities have pledged to full divestment such as the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, many universities have divested from only coal and tar sands, such as Oxford University in the United Kingdom and the University of California in the United States.

“It’s really a moral prerogative to make people feel like they have a future on this planet. And so we’ve really grounded the hub in community – and I think through community, hope naturally arises.”

Grace Nosek

A strong sense of optimism is essential because climate change is so often embedded in hopelessness, says Nosek. “We’ve created this incredibly joyful community and really set those norms that if a new person shows up [to the Climate Hub], we’re just like, ‘We’re so excited to have you! You can help, what skills do you want to learn, what skills do you want to bring?’”

Ask any French national about the 1960s and they will tell you how May 68 shaped their country, or any American on the role of student activism during the Vietnam War. Students today must too, cultivate communities which simultaneously challenge and work with the institutions they are embedded within; consequently, institutions must support the students who are driving for this change; and members of the community must embrace diverse, hopeful climate solutions, so that we can reflect on 2019 and the years following as the years of the student climate revolution.

Categories: Articles

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