“Systemic change, not climate change” and “we need solutions, change the institutions,” were among the slogans chanted by McGill students at the Youth Climate Strike on Mar. 15. One-hundred-twenty-five cities around the world participated in the protest, calling for governments and institutions to adopt environmentally-sustainable policies to help diminish the effects of climate change. Protests like the Youth Climate Strike demonstrate that individuals alone cannot counter climate change; governments and institutions must be held accountable.
Popular environmentalist movements often focus on the steps individuals should take to combat climate change. Elementary school students learn to turn off the lights when they leave a room, close the faucet when they brush their teeth, and recycle. The logic behind these actions lead to fad movements like banning straws and going vegan. However, these solutions are unlikely to make a significant difference on their own, as they often assume that such lifestyle changes are accessible to all and ignore economic, cultural, and physical barriers. Moreover, they place the blame on individuals, rather than on corporations causing massive damage. As the organizers of last week’s climate demonstration in front of the Arts Building highlighted in their speeches, governments and institutions like McGill should be using their power to fight against climate change.
Climate activism has been on the rise in recent years in response to the influx of data showing that, without large-scale changes to our treatment of the planet, both Earth and its inhabitants will suffer in the years to come. Outcomes include food shortages, poorer air quality, more natural disasters, and the destruction of public infrastructure. These negative consequences will disproportionately affect people of colour and working-class communities; low-income groups are more likely to be forced to live in areas that experience climate change’s effects at a higher rate while lacking the means to protect themselves and their homes. This knowledge has ignited a widespread sense of panic that is particularly strong among young people, who fear for their chance to lead long, healthy lives.
Increasingly, research proving that climate change is the result of structural factors, notably unregulated capitalism that values profit over all else, often at the expense of the environment. The choice to blame the actions of the individual is no coincidence, as the rich and powerful refuse to admit their faults or give up some of their wealth to save the planet. Young people, racialized groups, and the working class are expected to bear the consequences of mistakes that they did not make.
McGill has a role to play in the fight for climate justice. Banning plastic water bottles is an important step, but the school should devote more time and energy to initiatives like reconsidering its investments and approaches its renovation projects. Divest McGill has been active on campus in recent years in an attempt to persuade the university to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. While the initiative has experienced some success, with the Senate voting to support divestment, the Board of Governors (BoG) continues to refuse to vote on the issue. The Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), which advises the BoG on the social impacts of its investments, is currently investigating the possibility of fossil fuel divestment. It’s essential that CAMSR recognizes the social ills of fossil fuels, and that the BoG heed their recommendations.
Recently, McGill received $1.8 million from the federal government’s Low-Carbon Economy Fund for Climate Action. The money will go towards an upgrade to the university’s heating system to reduce its carbon footprint as a part of its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2040. While this is a worthy initiative, it is hypocritical that McGill continues to dance around the subject of divestment while boasting about its other plans. McGill’s investments will not matter if the planet does not have a proper future. It is time to abandon the rhetoric that young people must single-handedly save our planet while those who created the problem sit back and watch, knowing that they may not even be alive to suffer the consequences. McGill is a powerful institution that has significantly contributed to the deterioration of the environment, and, therefore, it has a responsibility to lead efforts to restore it.