Montreal·First Person

Why I resigned from my tenured position teaching climate science in college

Our students deserve a livable future, and they deserve our apology, immediate action and emotional support to navigate a very uncertain future, writes Heather Short.

I've taught students about the climate crisis for years. But they aren't the ones who need to act now

Heather Short stands beside her garden. After years of teaching students about climate change, she says students need to see more commitment — and emotional support — from the education system to ethically continue. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)

This First Person article is the experience of Heather Short, a scientist and educator who lives in the greater Montreal region. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I have enjoyed my nearly 15 years of teaching students about geology, earth systems science, climate literacy and the present human-caused climate and ecological crises in my time at John Abbott College on the island of Montreal. My interactions with them have by far been the most rewarding part of my job.

I will miss them, and miss seeing that spark of excitement when they've learned something new. However, it is clear to me now that teaching young people about these crises without a cohesive, science-informed institutional and cultural framework of climate-literate support does them more harm than good. Let me explain.

I arrived at this conclusion after many months of reflection, informed by teaching thousands of students about what the best available science predicts for their futures. Climate science consensus tells us that the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent of 2010 levels by the year 2030 in order to have a 66 per cent chance of avoiding a cascade of extreme climate events that will be unstoppable within their lifetimes.

At present, countries have pledged to reduce emissions by a global total of 0.5 per cent by 2030.

We (privileged people in wealthy countries) have a very short window of opportunity to take decisive, systemic action to avert the worst consequences of climate breakdown. Not only do our current emissions targets put us far behind where we need to be, our province's 50-year-old education system lacks the support our students need to face this reality.

Teaching this to an 18 year old is like telling them that they have cancer, then ushering them out the door, saying "sorry, good luck with that."

It is also fundamentally unfair and unjust for us — part of the generations that have benefitted from unmitigated resource extraction and emissions — to drop the responsibility to fix (or adapt to) the climate crisis in their young laps.

They deserve a livable future, and they deserve our apology, immediate action and emotional support to navigate an uncertain future. Honesty, transparency and open dialogue about these climate and ecological crises must form the core of our education.

Heather Short has been teaching university and college students for 25 years, including nearly 15 years at John Abbott College. (Submitted by Heather Short)

I know this will not be easy. Denial is a human and understandable response to extremely upsetting information. But as the adults with agency in our students' lives, we need to understand — at the bare minimum — the climate science that they learn in school so that we can lend a sympathetic ear to their concerns about their futures, and offer practical, well-informed advice about what to do.

The younger generations need to hear from us that they are not alone, that we'll work for them to mitigate emissions as quickly as possible. They need us to demonstrate that we will give up some of our own security and privilege in a system that is not adapting to the demands of the scientific consensus on the climate emergency, in order to change that system.

To address this need, I proposed a job-restructuring as a climate literacy specialist that admittedly was not one that fit readily into the current hiring/employment structure (or the collective agreement) at the college. That was rather the point. It was conceived in the context of repeated calls — from thousands of scientists — for immediate transformative, systemic change.

This kind of change must happen in all aspects of society, including educational institutions. Clearly this can only come to pass under leadership prepared to be bold and brave in response — to think and act outside of the norms that have led to tenured, comfortable jobs and a state of the world in which this past year of pandemic, fire, floods and heat waves will be the best scenario we can hope for from now on.

My resignation is my act of conscientious objection to educational business-as-usual with a "green" twist, couched in the assumption of a forever-growing economy on a physically finite planet. The science clearly shows us that the future our students are headed for will be radically different from one that can be met by the incremental changes and technological solutions we are currently engaged in.

As education stands now, we are not preparing our students to be successful in their futures, and by not admitting to that, we are failing them.

As a scientist and educator, I must speak the scientific truth no matter the personal, social or economic consequences. I will now endeavour to educate decision-makers, politicians, voters and in general those who have the economic and political agency to contribute to the transformative systemic changes that need to be made.

There is still time to lock in a future climate similar to what the world experienced this past year. The longer we delay, the more unrecognizable our children's and grandchildren's futures become. The climate of our youth may be gone, and that is reason to grieve — but not to give up.

Editor's note: John Abbott College declined to comment on Heather Short's criticisms of the education system and told CBC it has many initiatives relating to climate change and reducing its carbon footprint.

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Dr. Heather Short holds a PhD in earth sciences and has been teaching college and university students for 25 years. She trusts scientific consensus and would like to encourage everyone to think about how they can contribute to transformative systemic change in all aspects of society.


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