Sign reading, "one world," with a drawing of the earth

Confronting Colonial Legacies in University Climate Action

By Sharon Stein and Jan Hare

Indigenous thinkers have long pointed to the central role of colonialism in creating the climate and nature emergency, but institutions of higher education have largely failed to account for this in their commitments to climate-related research, education, and engagement.

In our recent article in the Higher Education Review, we argue that the widespread failure to address the connections between colonialism and climate change in the context of university climate action is not due to a lack of knowledge about these connections, given that colonialism’s role as a root cause and driver of climate change is the subject of growing scholarly research and has been acknowledged by the IPCC and recent reports from the UN. We suggest instead that universities’ lack of engagement with the role of colonialism in climate change is grounded in denial of their own complicity in colonial violence—and thus, their complicity in the climate emergency as well. As Kwakwaka’wakw geography scholar Sarah Hunt/Tłaliłila’ogwa (2022) suggests, when universities fail to “confront the fact that colonialism shapes current academic norms and systems of value,” their “climate action risks replicating the oppressive structures of power that got us into this mess in the first place” (p. 136).

A growing number of voices have identified the risk that mainstream technocratic proposals for climate mitigation, climate adaptation, decarbonization, and green energy could reproduce rather than interrupt colonial relations. For instance, “green sacrifice zones” have been created in the territories of Indigenous peoples and communities in the Global South. By presuming unfettered access to land, labour, and resources, these proposals seek to ensure the comforts and consumption levels of systemically advantaged communities at the expense of the well-being of systemically marginalized communities and their territories. Critics have described these as “false solutions,” given that they infringe on Indigenous and human rights, can lead to new forms of ecological degradation, and obscure the underlying systemic causes of climate change.

In order to examine the risk of reproducing colonial dynamics through climate responses in the context of higher education, in our article we reflect on our experience as part of an Indigenous engagement working group of a climate emergency task force at our own institution. In particular, we raise a series of questions about how universities’ climate action could honour the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). While UNDRIP does not directly address climate change, many elements of the declaration touch on related issues. For instance, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources” (Article 29).

Indigenous scholars have advocated for the relevance of UNDRIP to climate responses. Dene health scholar Nicole Redvers and colleagues argue “UNDRIP should be further platformed within current and ongoing climate and biodiversity negotiations at multiple scales of influence and across all sectors and governance.” Meanwhile, Anishinaabe environmental justice scholar Deborah McGregor and colleagues have observed that while Indigenous voices are central to achieving a liveable future, they “remain at the margins in global discussions on the collective future of humanity and the planet,” and the global implementation of UNDRIP can serve as “a minimum starting point in resolving this situation” (p. 38). This is not to say that UNDRIP captures the depth and heterogeneity of Indigenous perspectives on climate justice. But it can serve as a generative entry point for inviting climate actors, including universities, to consider their responsibilities to respect the rights, self-determination, sovereignty, and knowledges of Indigenous peoples who have their own priorities and visions for addressing the climate crisis.

About the Authors

Sharon Stein is a white settler educator and associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of Unsettling the University: Confronting the Colonial Foundations of US Higher Education (2022).

Jan Hareis an Anishinaabe-kwe scholar and educator from the M’Chigeeng First Nation. She is professor and dean pro tem in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. She also holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Indigenous Pedagogy.

They are the authors of “The Challenges of Interrupting Climate Colonialism in Higher Education” in the Fall 2023 issue of Harvard Educational Review.