By Sofia Descalzi

Climate justice activists keep telling us that we must all come together to solve the current climate crisis, and they’re right. However, governments everywhere are failing to rise to the occasion and implement changes outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and the Paris Agreement to curb carbon emissions and avoid an environmental catastrophe. While we grapple with the dire effect of climate change, billions of public funds are being grossly misused in infrastructure, advertisement, and bailouts for the oil and gas industry, while public services that will support a shift to renewable energy are being neglected.

While public funds are being used to bolster fossil fuels corporations, the federal government fails to adequately invest in high-quality, accessible education. Students in Canada are currently facing a crisis in post-secondary education with the total national public student debt reaching a new record of $36 billion dollars. If this trend continues, it is projected that by 2020-21 the number of federal student loans issued in one year will exceed $3 billion.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we only have eleven years to drastically implement changes to protect the living planet before irreversible catastrophe. However, when people are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, they usually focus on making it to the next day instead of working together to restructure society. Many students have to acquire multiple jobs to cover the costs of their education and living, including tuition, textbooks, household bills and groceries.

At the same time, stiff competitiveness in the labour market forces people to take on unpaid internships with no source of income, thus, furthering them into even more debt. As climate activists have explained time and time before, we need a collective effort similar to the ones made during the Great Depression and the Second War World to push through in times of adversity. All levels of society must come together to devote time and energy to fight against climate change, and we cannot do this if an entire generation is burdened with billions of dollars in student debt. By preventing people from having financial stability, the current model for post-secondary education of piecemeal reform and chronic underfunding becomes an accomplice in the destruction of our future–or what remains of it.

The erosion of public investment to post-secondary education leaves institutions starved for funding, which opens a window for private oil and gas companies to provide economic resources and further their own agendas. One only needs to do a simple internet search to see how intertwined oil is in post-secondary institutions like Dalhousie University, Memorial University, University of Calgary, and the University of Waterloo. In fact, dozens of universities and colleges across Canada refuse to divest from fossil fuels despite students’ repeated demands to do so, making Canadian post-secondary institutions more dependable on fossil fuel investments than their counterparts in countries like England and Australia. Post-secondary institutions should never profit from oil and gas as economic dependence on non-renewable resources may compromise funding available towards curiosity-driven research on renewable energy solutions. These institutions should be fostering our move to a renewable energy future with research and innovation. Instead, they currently serve as enrichment hubs for the oil and gas industry.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Spearheaded by commitments to true reconciliation with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) nations, hundreds of organizations have already signed the Leap Manifesto to shift towards a fully renewable economy by 2030. Similarly, earlier this year, the PowerShift conference gathered hundreds of climate activists across the country and strengthened the need for a Green New Deal in Canada that encompasses the policy changes required to freeze fossil fuel expansion and fully invest in a green economy. This vision for a green future heavily relies on the tenet of just transition, which is a restructuring of the job market to create a renewable energy-based economy, and a highly educated population. The success of these climate change solutions depends on how federal and provincial governments frame post-secondary education.

There is untapped potential for our colleges and universities to serve as hubs for planning and development needed to implement the bold strategies that people are calling for to meet the scale of the climate crisis. For example, developing green technology programs, introducing questions on how to mitigate and adapt to climate change into curricula of different academic departments, and retraining workers in the non-renewable industry. The truth is that the fate of our collective future must include universal public post-secondary education that is irrevocably intertwined with climate justice. And this can only happen if public colleges and universities are fully subsidized and are able to provide high-quality programming.

On this Earth Day, we should all think bigger. We need climate justice that is grounded on ending poverty and securing jobs for everyone, regardless of their background. Post-secondary education can be one of the tools that lead us there and we need to push elected leaders to heavily invest in public services this year, and every year going forward. We cannot afford to continue wasting resources in oil and gas expansion and lose the one planet we have.