University faculty, staff, and students from around Canada have petitioned for their respective universities to sign a Global Climate Letter.
The petition, circulated this March by the Climate Action at the University of Alberta (CAUA) has garnered over 3,500 signatures from faculty, staff, and students from 75 Canadian universities. Of these signatures, the single largest number — 20 per cent — were from the University of Alberta.
Universities that sign the Global Climate Letter, which declares a global climate emergency, would commit to going carbon neutral in the next 30 years, increasing environmental and sustainability education across their campuses, and mobilizing more resources towards research to combat climate change.
David Cooper, an accounting professor emeritus at the U of A and member of CAUA, gave two key reasons the university should listen to petitioners and sign the Global Climate Letter that he sees as working together in “happy confluence.”
“On the one hand there is an ethical and moral responsibility,” he said. “By that I mean showing leadership for Canadians … to say that we have got to do something very drastic in order to save the planet.”
The second reason Cooper gave was financial, an aspect he has considered widely in his past as an accounting professor.
“I think about what would be responsible investing of pension funds,” he said. “There’s an argument about not putting all your eggs in one basket and diversifying away from [the oil and gas] industry, so that we have an international portfolio rather than Canadian-only portfolio investments.”
Cooper said that while he doesn’t believe the oil and gas industry should “go away,” he thinks it’s important for university administrators to recognize that the tides have turned.
“We — like a lot of other investment management companies in the world — have to recognize that this is a diminishing industry,” he said. “Albertans run the very challenging task of dealing with what is sometimes referred to as stranded assets, assets where we’ve invested a lot of money in a particular activity, and it no longer is going to bear any benefits.”
University has ethical imperative despite budget cuts, Cooper argued
Cooper, who was a former member of the Board of Governors (BoG) — the highest decision making body at the university — said that he understands the pressures faced by the current BoG to keep the U of A afloat in the face of severe cuts from the provincial government.
“When you’re sinking financially, it’s hard to be thinking about issues of leadership and public interest,” he said.
“It’s hard for anybody, including the board, to pay attention to moral and ethical principles. I don’t mean that they will behave unethically, although I think it’s pretty hard to justify continuing to have a strong connection to the fossil fuel industry in the face of increasing climate change.”
Cooper said if the university refuses to sign, he would feel “disappointed” but “not surprised,” noting that the current provincial government has had considerable influence over who sits on the board.
“From what I can understand from comments that have been made by the current BoG, [they] are not likely to be sympathetic to this letter,” he said.
The Gateway reached out to the BoG, but they said they were unable to “share anything at this moment.”
Ultimately, Cooper said it will be vital for students to take a stand and make it known to the board that issues surrounding the climate crisis must be prioritized.
“I think in many respects, it is going to be up to the students, both the graduates and undergraduate students to be pushing on this issue,” he said. “If there’s going to be a source of leadership in this ethical long term planetary concern, it’s going to come from young people.”
“I think we need the students [and] our student leaders to step up to the plate and encourage both the government and university administration to show some moral fibre here.”
A previous version of this article stated that an overwhelming majority of petition signatures were from those associated with the U of A. The Gateway regrets the error.