Our planet is on fire, and Concordia does not even meet the poorly written fire code

Graphic Carl Bindman

Montrealers are paying for the climate crisis with their money, with their homes, and with their lives. For example, Montreal had a record one-day snowfall that cost the city over $40 million of your tax dollars to clear up, floods that evacuated thousands from their homes in winter 2019, and a heat wave that killed over 50 people in summer 2018. 

This year, we watched a heat wave kill over 700 Canadians in British Columbia, and witnessed wildfires scorch the entire village of Lytton on our screens at home. Floods submerged parts of Europe under water, breaking a dam, destroying at least 20 bridges and killing about 200 people in Germany. These deaths are only the tip of the iceberg, with the World Health Organization estimating that the climate crisis is responsible for over 150,000 deaths every year. Last August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report indicating that we are already locked-in to cross the 1.5 C warming threshold in the 2030s, which would have irreversible impacts.

Your taxes fund universities to equip us for the future, but are they preparing us for the climate crisis that is here now? In every career and field, the climate crisis requires us all to act. As educators, our job is to teach and equip students to do that—an academic mission that our universities are colossally failing at. 

Concordia University launched a sustainability action plan last year that includes a curriculum component. The component states that Concordia is committed to increasing “access” to sustainability-related courses, without quantifying whatever that means. That is not good enough.

Only 8.5 per cent of graduates at Concordia University are exposed to sustainability education according to STARS, the North American gold standard for assessing sustainability in universities. That is four times lower than the national average in Canada at 37 per cent (compiled list here). In fact, out of all 28 Canadian universities reporting to STARS, Concordia is fifth to last when it comes to sustainability learning outcomes. And those 8.5 per cent are predominantly engineering undergraduate students who are required by accreditation to learn about sustainability to obtain their professional designation in Quebec. It is worth noting that this data is self-reported by universities to STARS, and that Concordia used to receive a gold rating which expired in 2020. For perspective, 10 Canadian universities renewed their STARS rating in 2020, and there are two Canadian universities with a platinum rating and 14 Canadian universities with a valid gold rating. Finally, the Canadian Business Youth Council called for all business students in Canada to learn about the climate crisis in their curriculum.

Our planet is on fire. And, if the 37 per cent national average for sustainability curriculum is the fire code, then the reality is that it is inadequate and makes us all unsafe, and Concordia does not even meet that. It is time for Concordia to commit to exposing all students to sustainability content in their curriculum. 

One of the leading universities is our neighbour: the Université Laval, at 95 per cent, did just that. In 2009, Université Laval Education Commission made the institutional decision that sustainability must be integrated in all undergraduate programs. Over the following decade, different programs had the flexibility to design the most meaningful and relevant way to integrate sustainability for their students and field of study, leading to the current 95 per cent of their graduates having learnt about sustainability in their programs. Carleton University committed in its recently unveiled sustainability plan that “all students graduating from Carleton [will] have exposure to sustainability principles.” Italy is requiring all students in every grade to spend 33 hours learning about the climate crisis. There are over 130 professors at Concordia spanning almost every department across all four faculties who conduct sustainability-related research. As one of the university’s core competencies, why are we not learning about sustainability universally in our classrooms?

Concordia’s sustainability action plan originally included a commitment that all programs will have sustainability curriculum, but that commitment was consciously removed. Concordia has not only dropped the ball–it walked out. It took Université Laval 10 years from making its institutional commitment to fully execute it. So let’s be blunt, if the university made such an institutional commitment tomorrow, Concordia will still be twelve years behind Université Laval which is where we, and all other universities, should be today.

We do not have this kind of time.

We must take charge of our education and demand to be better equipped to fight the climate crisis. You have an opportunity to do just that in the upcoming Concordia Student Union by-election. One of the referendum questions in this byelection asks you to demand that Concordia commit to teaching all students about sustainability and the climate crisis by 2030, and to mandate the CSU in achieving that demand. Of course, we encourage the Graduate Student Association and other umbrella student groups to run similar referendum questions. 

According to the IPCC report, the current decade is our last chance to get our act together in order to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Fortunately, we live in the right place. The 2019 global climate strike was­­ the largest protest in history, with Montreal having the largest turnout of any city in the world. This is a community that is mobilizing its demand for institutions to do their job and deliver on their obligations to the society that funds them.

Whether you are a returning student or one who is new to the university, the bottom line is this: we are ill-prepared here at Concordia, and we are more than a decade behind. This article may be the closing argument of this referendum campaign, but, together, we can make it the beginning of a national movement across Canada that starts this Tuesday, right here at Concordia. 

Vote. And get your friends to participate. Voting will be online from Nov. 16 to the 18.

Authors: Dr. Keroles B. Riad (@Kerologist) is a former Public Scholar at Concordia University, a recipient of the Quebec Lieutenant-Governor Youth Medal, and leader of the “Waste Not, Want Not” initiative on campus.

Faye Sun is the Sustainability Coordinator at the Concordia Student Union, Chair of the Sustainability Committee (CSU), member of the Sustainability Action Fund Board of Directors, Coordinator for the Concordia Pollinator’s Initiative (CFC), and member of Dr. Sarah Turner’s Primatology & Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (PIES) Lab

Christopher Vaccarella is the president of the Political Science Student Association, project manager of the Climate Emergency Committee, a councillor at the Concordia Student Union (CSU), and a member of the CSU sustainability committee and the Sustainability Action Fund board of directors.