With the COVID-19 pandemic escalating and spreading across the world, information on the outbreak has been dominating news media and the public discourse. Many student organizers and climate activists are having a challenging time spreading awareness and fighting for their cause. University students across North America have been protesting their schools’ investment in fossil fuel industries, and many of them are finding new ways to organize amid the current pandemic. 

Since the start of modern civilization, schools have held a significant and almost sacred place in society. Schools are given the responsibility to pass on knowledge, inspire minds and cultivate ideas. Universities, in particular, embody the highest level of educational institutions. Coveting the privilege of higher education, young people choose to pay a costly price – which would often take them years to pay off – in exchange for an opportunity to be enlightened and challenged in a classroom. But how are the universities spending all this money? 

It is not news that post-secondary institutions have been heavily investing in fossil fuel industries. Over the past decade, people around the world have slowly started to realize the severity of the climate crisis and the devastating impact fossil fuels have on our planet. In the United States, Ivy League schools alone hold over $135 billion in endowments. There has been a decade-long push for divestment from student activists across the world, and the movement is still going strong.

On Feb.13, 2020, just a few weeks before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, student divestment groups across North America participated in Global Divestment Day. They protested on campus, on the streets and in front of fossil fuel companies. Kyle Rosenthal, a member of Climate Justice Boston College (CJBC), said the student group marched on the Boston College campus and held actions with other universities in the city. 

Kyle Rosenthal led a referendum campaign in Spring 2019 (The Environment Eagle)
Kyle Rosenthal led a referendum campaign in Spring 2019 (The Environment Eagle)

While physical group gatherings are no longer feasible because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Rosenthal said the student divestment groups will be participating in online activism through social media posts, email newsletters and op-eds. “Keeping the conversation going is easy once we recognize that the climate crisis is a public health crisis and the current pandemic is rooted in the same issues as the climate crisis,” he said.

Rosenthal said CJBC has been continuing their communication with the community as well as negotiations with university administration about possible changes. The group is also planning to promote online petitions and demand actions through phone calls and emails. 

“Ultimately, this is a great time to do individual research on how you can be involved in climate activism to discover which organizations you have a connection with that you can influence to take action,” said Rosenthal. “Whether that’s to divest from fossil fuels, reduce carbon emissions, switch to electric vehicles, etc.” (Read Rosenthal’s piece for The Boston Globe to learn more about the student divestment movement.)

Students are not the only ones who are calling out universities on their unethical investments. Gregory Mikkelson, a former philosophy professor at McGill University, resigned this past January due to the university’s refusal to sell off fossil fuel investment.

In 2018, Mikkelson submitted a pro-divestment motion to McGill’s Senate, which was passed by a large majority. However, the university’s Board of Governors refused to divest its endowment after discussing the matter with their committee, which is chaired by a former Petro-Canada executive. This marks the third time that McGill has rejected divestment from fossil fuels. He made the same decisions in 2013 and 2016.

Greg Mikkelson resigned in January 2019 after teaching at McGill for 18 years (CBC News)
Greg Mikkelson resigned in January 2019 after teaching at McGill for 18 years (CBC News)

“The McGill travesty is a microcosm of an ecocide contradiction at the heart of Canadian federal policy,” Mikkelson wrote in his review Divestment and Democracy in a Canadian University. “One monstrous example implicating both the university and the government is McGill’s several-million-dollar investment in TC Energy – the pipeline company on whose behalf the Royal Canadian Mounted Police invaded indigenous land in February 2020, touching off country-wide protests.”

Since schools have been shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Mikkelson has escaped to the Laurentians to make maple syrup with his children. He said the main priority for environmental activism right now is urging governments to bail out citizens and workers instead of fossil fuel corporations. “The federal government should let [fossil fuel companies] die, while paying fossil fuel workers to re-train for jobs in renewable energy and clean-up of the toxic mess already created by tar sands exploitation,” said Mikkelson.

Some universities have been changing their investment decisions in response to the divestment movement. As of March 2020, nearly 175 post-secondary institutions around the world have stopped investing in the fossil fuel industry. In 2019, the University of California system announced its decision to fully divest from fossil fuels, marking the most significant action in the divestment movement amongst all universities.

In Canada, Concordia University decided last year to divest entirely from coal oil and gas by 2025 – an endowment worth up to $243 million. However, the majority of universities in North America are still reluctant to fully pull out their investment from fossil fuels. 

As much as universities’ links to fossil fuels reveal the hypocrisy and flaws of post-secondary institutions, they have also shown the world the power of student movements. Even as the COVID-19 outbreak is putting a hold on group actions, youth organizers are moving the climate movement online by posting, sharing and gathering online. 

#FridaysforFuture, a ground-breaking movement started by Greta Thunberg in 2018 and joined by students worldwide, has moved its weekly climate strike online. As stated on #FridaysforFuture social media platform, “the climate emergency is the biggest crisis we have ever faced, it won’t wait until after COVID-19 is dealt with – so we can’t either.” 

The movement also launched the new campaign #TalksforFuture, hosting weekly webinars and discussions with experts. Moderated by Greta Thunberg, the first webinar featured renowned journalist and activist Naomi Klein, and WHO climate change and health team leader Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum. The webinars are live-streamed on Instagram and YouTube, allowing people from around the world to participate in this important conversation. 

On April 22-24, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, organizers and climate activists from all around the world will be participating in Earth Day Live, a large-scale mobilization for the climate crisis. The three-day action will include events such as teach-ins, musical performances and divestment initiatives. Many members from student divestment groups, including Rosenthal and his fellow CJBC members, will be participating in the event. 

Locally, Climate Justice Toronto (CJTO), a youth-led grassroots collective based in Toronto, hosted its first Zoom organizing meeting on March 26. The meeting started with the members sharing what they have learned over the past few weeks, building social solidarity within the group before tackling broader issues in the community. The group discussed their plan to move campaigns online through petitions and fundraisers.

“Physical distancing can be very isolating. We are so grateful for our community and want to use this platform to encourage community in these difficult times,” said CJTO. On March 27, the group organized an online watch party of There’s Something in the Water, a documentary that explores the injustice and injuries caused by environmental racism in Nova Scotia. The group also celebrated their one-year anniversary by sharing a compilation of photos of their past actions. 

Birthday photo collage (CJTO facebook)
Birthday photo collage (CJTO facebook)

The impact of fossil fuels may not be as immediate as the impact of infectious diseases, but that does not mean it is not as detrimental. This quarantine situation could even become the new normal amidst extreme weather and heavy pollution. Many countries have already been impacted by climate-related disasters and their effects on the normal functioning of societies. For instance, the smog crisis in China, which started in 2013 due to fossil fuel pollution, has led to school closings, factory shut-downs and national public health emergencies. 

“We continue to point out that these vulnerable populations are the same ones most affected by the climate crisis so our work in social justice continues in the same vein,” said Rosenthal. “Communication and behaviour change are major aspects of addressing the climate crisis and with the time people have in their homes, they can learn and discover what that impact may mean for them and their organizations and businesses.”

If there is one lesson we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that global crises require change and co-operative measures from all parts of society. COVID-19 may eventually go away, but the climate crisis will not. Young people will keep pushing for institutions and universities to be held accountable for the decisions they make.

This article was originally published on April 7, 2020 in Telling the Story using Integrated Media.

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