Heather Short writes Why I resigned from my tenured position teaching climate science in college. She repeats over and over the need to take decisive, systematic action, but never mentions what that would entail.
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.
OK, so why resign?
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.
You’d better, because that sounds like a flipping word salad.
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.
No, it doesn’t. In the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, the SPP1-1.9 scenario (very low emissions) is the only one that will reduce emissions by 45% of 2010 levels by 2030. For scenario SPP2-4.5 (intermediate emissions), the report predicts:
- Warming of 2.7C from preindustrial global average (1.2C from current level)
- Wetter weather in the northern hemisphere, drier weather around the Mediterranean
- 10 year hot weather events about 5x more likely
- Heavy rains 70% more likely
- Global ocean surface Ph level decreased by 1.5 over 1985 level
- Sea level increased by 70cm (2’4″) over 1985 level
At present, countries have pledged to reduce emissions by a global total of 0.5 per cent by 2030.
If these commitments are met, this would match scenario SPP1-2.6 (low emissions), which would keep warming to 1.8C from preindustrial global temperatures and only 0.5C from the current level.
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.
‘Privileged’ people in wealthy countries can do little beyond what we are doing. Canada is half way to its goal of eliminating coal and gas fired power plants. Electric vehicles are slowly becoming more affordable. If the government spent less, taxes could be lowered and more people would be able to buy electrics, which would then lower costs further.
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.”
If an 18 year old has cancer, you should tell them the unvarnished facts. Getting a death sentence requires a support system, and in Canada, we have support groups for people with cancer. Giving the news that in the future, the environment will be worse in some ways, seems like a walk in the park in comparison. Are our college students so weak that they can’t deal with hard truths? Doing so is a life skill that I wish I had learned in my time at university, instead of later in life.
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.
Life isn’t fair or just. We should do what we can reasonably do. Canadians will likely fair very well even with significant warming (see Global Warming: Crisis? What Crisis?). The young will have to adapt to change, just as we have. The technological changes that have occurred in our lifetimes have exceeded any our parents had to cope with. I don’t get upset with them for benefiting from the slower pace of change that they enjoyed.
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.
What do I personally need to apologize for? Driving a car? Heating my home? Sorry, not sorry. What action am I expected to take? Do you expect me to support giving the government a blanket mandate to take action? The political class are not competent to do so. I firmly believe their green new deals will cause more problems than they solve.
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.
My practical advice is try new things, find what you love to do, and do it. If you’re so inclined, starting a family can be rewarding, though these days, it’s very easy to have someone take advantage of you, so be careful. If you can, give to charity.
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.
We are doing much of what we can. I would be willing to pay more for goods due to tariffs against big polluters like China. I would be happy to see existing carbon tax revenues be put toward green power and transit.
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.
Instead of teaching the science, you wanted to preach activism.
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.
No, it must not. Creating an army of climate extremists will merely fuel divisive politics. If you advocate for immediate elimination of all emissions, as many climate extremists do, you will create a backlash from people who see that you’re being unreasonable, and they will then ignore all calls to change.
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.
Technological solutions take time. The government can do little to change their pace, other than to slow things down with bureaucracy. Eliminating fossil fuels from our electrical grid may be an incremental step, but it’s a huge one. Electrification of vehicles will take time. Right now, electric vehicles are only affordable by the wealthy and are still impractical for many of them. We don’t have practical solutions for home heating, long haul transport, and farming yet. If we develop the means to produce green hydrogen in large quantities, some of those remaining sources of emissions can be addressed.
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.
In Canada, the impact of climate change will be largely positive. This means once students learn enough about the expected changes in our climate to avoid buying homes in low lying areas that are subject to flooding, they should then focus on figuring out their own personal goals if they want to be successful.
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.
Seems like a good choice.
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.
Barring geoengineering, I don’t think we have a hope of “locking in a future climate”. We can limit human contributions to climate change. Who is delaying? I am doing my part. Twenty years ago, I drove to work every day. Two years ago, I took a train to work. Today, I work from home. All call to action with no plan is a waste of time. Carbon taxes alone are not a plan. They are a wealth transfer to the political class and their donors.