Can College and University Campuses Become Nodes of a More Formidable Climate Movement?

George Hoberg
March 12, 2012

The postponement of the Keystone XL pipeline has breathed new life into climate movement that has been struggling in the US, Canada, and globally. Blocking significant new fossil fuel infrastructure can be important in galvanizing interest and creating momentum, but it is only a means to the much larger end of achieving regional, national, and global climate policies that can produce the rapid and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to achieve international targets. The climate movement needs to scale up dramatically to create the breadth and depth of political pressure necessary to force more meaningful change.

One potential new source of untapped energy may be college and university campuses. At the University of British Columbia, we are experimenting with a new organization that may provide a model helpful to other campuses across North America.

UBCC350’s Mission

Inspired by the global climate movement fostered by, UBCC350 is a group of UBC students, faculty, and staff committed to advocating for meaningful government climate action. We strongly support aggressive global, national, and provincial actions to address the climate crisis, but our immediate focus is on carbon exports from British Columbia. BC has enacted progressive climate policies, but they have yet to be fully implemented. At the same time, BC has become a significant exporter of greenhouse gas emissions that are not considered when the province measures its emissions. Current greenhouse gas exports are about twice the existing in- province emissions, and there are proposals to increase them significantly through new tar sands pipelines, new LNG facilities, and increased coal exports.  We believe BC needs to take responsibility for these emissions by enacting policies to reduce or at least price these exports.

Our Model

Campuses should be fertile ground for climate organizing. Most universities have faculty expertise in environment generally or climate in particular, and many faculty who are frustrated with government inaction are looking for a way to make a difference beyond traditional science communication and teaching. Most campuses have very active networks of student groups on sustainability, although usually focused on personal or institutional consumption by students and campuses. There are a variety of existing networks and relationships through residences, student groups, majors, and courses that if strengthened and redirected could become potent organizational tools.

We are guided both by a core policy belief and an organizational philosophy. We believe that to achieve the required scale of change, reliance on individual or organizational efforts to reduce carbon footprints will not be sufficient. Significant government policy action is required to price or otherwise regulate carbon to transform the energy system. Mass mobilization and political pressure is required to force reluctant elected politicians to act.

Our organizational philosophy is that effective movement building will only occur through the “strong ties” that develop through sustained face to face interactions. Social media is an enormously powerful communication tool, but real meaning and commitment come from in person interactions, and real political power comes from the capacity to reach out to voters in important electoral races.  With the proper nudging, the university community can be a very nurturing environment for this type of strategy. We’ve broken down the boundaries between faculty and students and created a distinctive group where a variety of members of the UBC community are working together to move beyond the campus to take political action in the surrounding community.

Our First Campaign

Our first major campaign is “Storm the Riding” on March 31, 2012. We will be canvassing in the Vancouver-Point Grey riding, held by Premier Christy Clark. We’ll set up information stations at busy intersections and go door to door in teams, informing voters about BC’s growing carbon exports and asking that they sign a petition demanding Premier Clark take a position in opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline. We will then have a march delivering these petitions to Clark’s constituency office. Our immediate target is Premier Clark, but by targeting marginal polling areas in a competitive riding, we are also trying to send a broader message to provincial and federal parties about the importance of climate issues to voters in BC. We are engaging media in the effort to broaden exposure to the event, and send a signal to the political establishment that youth are mobilizing and climate matters. We believe this strategy will be effective because we need policy change, and the best way to achieve policy change is to convince elected leaders that there is an electoral incentive to act.

A Starter Kit for Creating Your Own Campus Climate Action Group

After Storm the Riding, we will plan additional actions in the Fall and into the future to continue mobilizing support for climate action with grassroots organizing. We are hoping our model of campus-based grassroots political action will inspire other colleges and universities, and help foster a more formidable climate movement.

Here are some ideas for how to get started

  1. Identify catalysts who have the level of commitment and time to take the lead in organizing
  2. Find like-minded faculty members willing to get political
  3. Build on existing organizational networks on campus
  4. Cultivate allies among established non-university activist group
  5. Create a brand that will resonate with your campus and that connects you to the larger climate movement (but that is also acceptable to your university). We used, and you can now register local chapters of here
  6. Select a salient policy issue on which to focus
  7. Select an influence strategy at a reasonable jurisdictional scale

If our current scientific understanding is correct, time is short to reverse the trajectory of the energy system and put us on a path for a safe climate. Please consider the words of Bill McKibben, in his speech at UBC n November 2011.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll win the fight against climate change. There are scientists who think we’ve waited too long to get started in this fight, and there is too much momentum behind this heating. There are political scientists who think the odds are simply too high; there’s too much money piled on the other side. If you were a betting person you might be wise to bet with them because we’ve been losing more or less for twenty years. But that is not a bet you are allowed to make. The only stance for a moral human being when the worst thing on earth is happening is to get up in the morning and figure out how you can change those odds.”

Why not make your campus a more vibrant and meaningful place by getting faculty and students together to take political action for meaningful policy change?

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2 Responses to Can College and University Campuses Become Nodes of a More Formidable Climate Movement?

  1. Milan says:

    Blocking pipelines also serves another purpose – it creates an environment in which businesses see carbon pricing as a preferable alternative. Unless there is the threat of something ‘worse’ from their perspective, corporations may never be willing to accept a price on greenhouse gas pollution. If the alternative is project-by-project blockage of their investment plans, they may be more willing to support an economy-wide solution.

  2. Michael Edwards says:

    A very comprehensive, tactical approach and it may work if you’re fighting a single project. But like so many climate change initiatives, I think it misses a critical point. Canada needs, but doesn’t have, a National Energy Policy. All we do is fight at the project level and in the dark. We need an alternative and viable view of what Canada’s energy future should look like, in energy policy terms . The public needs to see a plan that makes the case for what’s in the public interest and how we can get there, near term midterm and beyond.

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