Should all undergraduate students at Concordia learn about the climate crisis?

Tuesday, Concordia students will vote in a referendum on whether the school should commit to teaching all undergraduate students about sustainability and the climate crisis by 2030. 

Concordia University students to vote on whether school should teach climate science and sustainability policy

The Waste Not, Want Not team at Concordia University conducts in-class visits to help students know where to put their waste. The initiative is advocating for the school to teach climate science to all undergraduates. (Submitted by Keroles Riad)

Students at Concordia University are being asked to help determine the school's role in teaching about the climate crisis. 

Tuesday, they will vote in a referendum on whether the school should commit to teaching all undergraduate students about sustainability and the climate crisis by 2030. 

The vote is taking place at the same time as the Concordia Student Union (CSU) byelection. 

According to "Waste Not, Want Not," a student-led initiative at Concordia promoting waste reduction, about 8.5 per cent of the university's students graduate having studied issues related to sustainability or climate change.

The initiative says that compares to a 37.5 per cent average for institutions across the country.

The commitment requested by the vote is similar to one taken by Université Laval 12 years ago, in which university departments include topics on climate change in ways that are relevant to the subjects they teach.

"People feel helpless when they don't know how to help and that is the job of universities, giving people the tools to be able to contribute to the solution," said Keroles Riad, who is co-leading the referendum campaign alongside Faye Sun, the CSU's sustainability co-ordinator and Christopher Vaccarella, president of Concordia's political science student association.

Riad also runs "Waste Not, Want Not," and wrote a first-person story for CBC News about his work with the initiative earlier this year.

Riad said it took Université Laval about 10 years to implement the curriculum changes, which is why the aim is for Concordia to do so by 2030. 

Keroles Riad is co-leading the campaign for a referendum question at Concordia University, asking students whether the school should teach climate science and sustainability across all departments. (Submitted by Keroles Riad)

He said it's a date that may seem far to students, but that the hope is that the vote encourages other universities to do the same, comparing it to the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Under pressure from students, several universities have pledged to divest from direct investments in fossil fuel companies.

In 2019, Concordia made the promise to divest entirely from coal, oil and gas by 2025.

Not about creating anxiety, but finding solutions

Most of the students learning about sustainability and climate issues at Concordia, according to Riad, studied in programs such as geography, engineering or other programs covering science or social justice issues.

Riad studied engineering, eventually completing a PhD, and said the way some of his teachers included sustainability in the subject matter "helped me be more conscious on the issue."

He said the goal is not simply to teach students how bad things are, but how the careers they choose can help make things better. 

"There's a lot of anxiety out there because people generally have a lot of awareness that there is an issue, but I think what the education system is failing to deliver is tools to be part of the solution," Riad said.

Students carrying a banner reading '1.5 to stay alive' march down a street in downtown Montreal.
High school students from across Montreal march down Parc Avenue as part of a worldwide day of protest against climate change in March 2019. The banner, '1.5 to stay alive,' refers to what scientists now believe is the maximum number of degrees the global temperature can rise by the end of this century to avoid the worst impacts. (Louise Gravel/Radio-Canada)

Saturday, diplomats from 200 countries struck an agreement to intensify efforts to fight climate change at the United Nations global summit, COP26, with the aim of keeping global warming below 1.5 C degrees and phasing out the use of coal as a source of energy. 

Beyond that threshold, scientists say the risks of major climate disasters such as water shortages and deadly heat waves increases immensely.

The world has already warmed to 1.1 C degrees above pre-industrial levels and several scientists worry it is headed for above 1.5 C faster than we think. 

To some, it might feel late to make a commitment to teach students about the current crisis nearly 10 years from now, and Riad agrees.

"But at the end of the day, every step of progress helps," he said. "Even if we don't make 1.5 C degrees — which, it's already looking like that's quite hopeless — two degrees is better than three degrees," Riad said. 

"At this point, I don't think it's going to get any better, but at least we can mitigate some of the suffering that can happen or that is happening already."