UC leadership needed for the climate emergency

By Malcolm Scott

Since April this year sustained collective action by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and other environmental groups that disrupted London, and coinciding with the School Climate Strikes, convinced the UK parliament to pass an historic motion to declare a climate emergency (Locke, 2019)[1].  In May Greenpeace called on the New Zealand Government to declare a ‘climate and environmental emergency’ following the precedent set by the UK,[2] and soon after followed resolutions by Environment Canterbury,[3] and the Christchurch City Council[4] and as Locke (2019) notes, more than 900 other local governments in 18 countries, as well as 7000 colleges and universities have already declared a climate emergency.

In his article UC Must Recognize The Ecological Crisis, Locke makes three main recommendations including following Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) in joining the Climate Leaders Coalition. On 4 September 2019 UC did follow VUW in taking an historic step toward recognising the global ecological crisis and climate emergency, in an announcement by the VC Professor Cheryl de la Rey that “UC recognises the School Strike 4 Climate NZ on Friday 27 September.”[5] This followed a RNZ interview on 3 September with VUW Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford.[6] According to RNZ Victoria University had joined Lincoln University in endorsing the strike by school students planned for the 27 September, and that they were  encouraging their staff and students to take part, and neither will need to take annual leave nor explain their absence if they do so. On behalf of VUW Guilford said:

“We feel it’s very important, it’d be irresponsible not to support them, we do a lot of work on climate change and are very clear that the consequences of life as we know it from climate change are grave and irreversibly set in motion unless we rapidly de-carbonise the world energy supply so it is the adults that are being irresponsible risk takers not these young leaders.”

Guilford’s comments, and commitment to allow staff and students to take part in ‘civic action’ set a precedent and a challenge for every New Zealand University VC, that was immediately adopted for UC by de la Rey: “We understand that many of our staff and students will want to stand with the School Strike 4 Climate NZ in calling for a more sustainable future and we have made allowances for them to take leave to attend the event.

However, Guilford also introduced another challenge, the relevance of academic curricula in the face of the global ecological crisis and climate emergency:

“The idea that you can just go to school and learn your arithmetic and your English and life’s going to be fine in the next twenty, thirty, forty years is an abject nonsense. These kids are taking charge of their future, we need to support them in doing so.”

This leads back to another of Locke’s (2019) recommendations for UC:

“Our graduate attributes represent a charter for the skills, knowledge, and capabilities we think our students need as 21st century citizens, surely then it would be negligent not to include the ecological crisis.”

Some questions that arise:

  1. How does a UC degree prepare our students for the future of climate change?
  2. How will UC incorporate environmental values and climate change into its graduate profile?

And finally,

  • What does a ‘climate emergency’ actually mean?

All of these questions (and others) are crucial for UC and the rest of the university sector to be engaged with. The point of declaring an emergency is to create a situation of urgency, which according to the IPCC[7] appears to be the case.

But there are also risks and uncertainties for democracy when a government declares an emergency that could allow enactment of emergency powers. This could this lead to executive orders that by-pass due democratic or legislative process. For example, could dangerous environmentally destructive technologies such as aerosol geoengineering[8] be deployed for climate change mitigation under emergency powers despite widespread controversy[9] and no universally accepted governance structure or suitable environmental legislation? Since 2010 the NZ Government has repeatedly denied the existence of aerosol geoengineering operations in New Zealand,[10] yet thousands of New Zealanders have called on the government to cease geoengineering operations allegedly underway (change.org).[11] In an interview with Marc Morano, former US Republican insider, Morano discusses an alleged UN agenda for removal of civil rights and global depopulation under the auspices of a global climate emergency.[12] Discursive interpretations from sociology, politics, and law, as well as the environmental sciences, about what a climate ‘emergency’ actually means are imperative.

There is no doubt, for me at least, that the planet and humanity are facing an environmental and ecological catastrophe[13] and that the public are calling for urgency from government to respond to this. Universities as public institutions mandated to the role of critic and conscience have an obligation to demonstrate leadership through research and teaching, environmental sustainability, and ensuring our graduates are informed and prepared for their future in which “life will not continue on this planet as we know it” (Guilford, Vice-Chancellor VUW).

So far UC leadership has shown some initiative by assessing its investment portfolio and adopting a policy of ‘less than 1%’ of investments in fossil fuel industries, and in October 2018 stated its aim was to “cut its carbon footprint by 45% with a low carbon energy strategy that will significantly reduce its coal-based heating provision”.[14] However, UC focus on international growth means emissions from international air travel by increasing numbers of students and staff travelling internationally or more frequently means that the carbon footprint from air travel is likely to far exceed any reductions achieved by the low-carbon energy strategy. Further, aircraft damage to atmospheric ozone[15] cannot be mitigated by carbon offsetting. Clearly a more comprehensive approach and policies concerning emissions reduction by UC will be needed, including reducing staff air travel, and offsetting travel by international students recruited by UC since we cannot expect their country of origin to carry their carbon offsetting for their attendance at UC. Perhaps international student fees could include a carbon offset component.

Environmental advocacy groups, municipal councils, and the general public are calling climate change an emergency. UC’s response requires leadership and engagement with students, staff, and our local and national stakeholders. What will be our collective response?


[1] Locke, P. (2019). Univoice. https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/univoice/2019/09/03/uc-must-recognize-the-ecological-crisis/

[2] 2 May 2019, https://www.greenpeace.org/new-zealand/press-release/nz-govt-must-follow-uk-and-declare-climate-emergency/

[3] 16 May 2019, https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/112758855/environment-canterbury-declares-a-regionwide-climate-emergency

[4] 23 May 2019, https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/112932350/christchurch-city-council-declares-climate-emergency-to-protect-future-generations

[5] 4 September 2019, https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2019/uc-recognises-the-school-strike-4-climate-nz.html

[6] 3 September 2019, https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018711572/universities-show-solidarity-for-striking-school-students

[7] https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/

[8] 23 November 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/geoengineering-treatment-stratospheric-aerosol-injection-climate-change-study-today-2018-11-23/

[9] Robock, A., (2008). 20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 64:2, 14-18.

[10] Ministry for the Environment correspondence: 27 May 2010, (Letter; ENV4443); 3 Feb 2011 (OIA191); 10 March 2011 (ENV6401); 14 April (ENV6749); 5 Dec 2011 (ENV7876, 7936, 8004); Minister, A. Adams, 4 July 2014 (ENV12110); 29 Feb 2016 (OIA 16-D-00142); Minister, N. Smith, 11 April 2016 (OIA 16-O-00321); Minister, D. Parker, 16 May 2018 (COR1477).

[11] 15 Oct 2018, https://www.change.org/p/zane-o-neill-ban-geo-engineering-weather-modification-in-new-zealand/u/23422478?cs_tk=AYWoQ85ITtZhIYOByFsARvwaATghEpKNexUz1XKBLw%3D%3D&utm_campaign=5dcc4a1c2bd64aba991ee71ceb00d265&utm_medium=email&utm_source=petition_update&utm_term=cs

[12] 12 August 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpxAIYrtGLw&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3fM-qPIHJD4C_c31OKEV__M9bOl6dooDrseUyEqcyRmxKo0zIOqLBopc0

[13] 6 May 2019, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/

[14] 25 October 2018, https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2018/uc-aims-to-cut-carbon-footprint-by-45.html

[15] New Scientist 1994, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14219232-100/

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