The planet is literally burning, but it is still business as usual at UW.
The climate crisis is undeniably upon us and will affect every aspect of our lives. While the climate crisis will hit vulnerable populations first and most severely, none of us can escape its impacts, from wildfires to heat domes to flooding. As a student leader, I have seen firsthand the rising fear and anxiety my peers experience regarding the present realities and futures of our communities and the planet.
We are students, but we are, first and foremost, people. Many of us are international students, refugees, or immigrants whose family, home, and ancestral lands are in the Global South. For us, climate change is not an abstract issue: it is already directly impacting us and our loved ones.
However, the pervading attitude on campus is that climate change is an issue that is out of sight, out of mind. In September 2019, as part of the Global Climate Strikes, more than 4,000 people gathered in Waterloo Square to call for climate action. Four years have passed, but UW has yet to seriously prioritize student needs in the face of the climate crisis, the rising cost of living, increasing international student tuition, and safety in the face of increasingly polarized violence.
In the absence of community left by the pandemic and the lack of strong institutional voices to advocate for student needs, I and my co-lead organiser, Celine Isimbi, stepped up. Over the summer, we convened an independent coalition of undergraduate and graduate students under the banner of climate justice. We understand that the climate crisis is a pressing existential threat that intersects with all other forms of injustice. The UW Climate Justice Ecosystem (CJE) is working to build and mobilize student power for an intersectional grassroots movement towards a sustainable, resilient, and just UW for everyone.
We built our group from the ground up by approaching different people we knew in the few active pockets of advocacy left on campus. We reached out to a broad range of people, intentionally drawing connections between the climate crisis and economic justice, anti-racism, and queer liberation, among other causes. Slowly but surely, we began to gather interested students, all of us united by a sense of fear and rage at UW’s inaction on key issues. Today, we have representation across all faculties and disciplines at UW, and our core group of organisers brings valuable expertise from the realms of environmental, labour, and social justice.
We have been hard at work writing an open letter, a public manifesto of our group’s core demands. These demands are intersectional but rooted in climate justice: the belief that the climate crisis is not an amoral nor apolitical issue, and is something that must be tackled with an equity and justice lens. We have woven our diverse perspectives into this document, and we write with a clarity and urgency that is so lacking at UW.
Our 10 demands are not exhaustive by any means, but are a snapshot of the most material issues that students face, from the climate and housing crises, to the rising cost of living, to the lack of mental healthcare, to growing hate and threat of violence directed at our most marginalized peers. In the wake of the hate-motivated June 28 attack, we were all reminded that UW will not keep us safe: it is our (the students’) responsibility to build a culture of care that can mobilize and respond to protect each other.
We will be gathering signatures from campus and community partners over the next few weeks before we send this open letter directly to senior administration and other executive offices. They will be sent a strong message that their complacency and negligence will no longer be tolerated by their largest and most influential stakeholder group: the student body.
At the end of September, almost exactly four years since the last big climate strike, we will be hosting a climate justice rally on campus. We are thrilled to have a dynamic and diverse line up of student leaders speaking to their experience and knowledge on several of the issues outlined in our open letter. Our hope is to respark the process of educating and empowering the UW student body to stand in solidarity with us and their peers.
There is so much to mourn in the deepening climate crisis, but this summer has proven to me how much hope and power we can build when we come together. We know that this is a long fight, but it is a good one. While there is so much work to be done, it is high time we rolled up our sleeves and got started again.