Human solutions for a global climate in peril


Dr. Kate Ervine

Dr. Kate Ervine

It’s the most ominous challenge facing modern society but amid the gloom around climate change, glimmers of hope are emerging with younger generations. Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg springs to mind as an inspiring example, but Dr. Kate Ervine is particularly motivated by her students at Saint Mary’s.  

“Younger people are now harnessing their frustration, anger and fear to say, ‘That’s it, we’re going to do things differently,’” says Ervine, a faculty member with International Development Studies (IDS), Political Science, and the School of the Environment.

“I’ve always enjoyed teaching but I see a certain moral imperative now in the courses that I teach. A responsibility to current and future generations that are looking at a civilization that could collapse, essentially, in our lifetime.”

Saint Mary’s uses its interdisciplinary strengths to tackle the pressing issue from all angles. An Arts education can equip students with the tools needed to develop political and economic strategies that will address the complex nature of the problem, in line with what science is finding and how technology is advancing.

“We’re talking about fundamentally changing the nature of the world we live in,” says Ervine. “No one discipline can deal with this on its own. We need those policy makers and people who are critically thinking, who understand the history and the human challenges.”

In her book Carbon (Polity, 2018), Ervine contrasts the old carbon economies of coal, oil and gas with newer economies around carbon markets and carbon accounting. One reviewer called it “an absolute must-read for anyone interested in understanding more fully one of the most pressing issues in contemporary times: climate change."

The urgent need to reduce carbon emissions is still an abstract concept for many, says Ervine, adding “in some places in the world, it’s all too tangible. We’re not all going to experience it the same way.” The IDS program has always examined global injustice and inequality. Climate change adds another layer, already having a devastating impact on some developing areas. The World Bank estimates that by the year 2050, some 143 million migrants and climate refugees will be on the move due to flooding, droughts, food and water insecurity, and extreme weather.

In her course Conflict, Security and Development, Ervine takes a close look at the complex factors behind migration, which now include climate change. In Everyday Politics of Global Environmental Problems, a new course launching this winter, she will highlight global interconnections – things we do on a daily basis that are impacting the lives of people elsewhere. Something as simple as eating a doughnut can have a ripple effect. Most doughnut chains use palm oil, a largely invisible commodity in our everyday lives that is creating global problems such as deforestation and conflicts over land in Indonesia to make way for the valuable crop.

Ervine’s goal is to have students move beyond seeing those problems on an individual basis, to look at the politics and relations of power that shape so many of our pressing environmental challenges.  

“We’re facing the world’s sixth mass extinction, and we are losing species at an unprecedented rate because of human activity,” she says.

The public discourse around climate change can be toxic but universities provide a safe space for faculty and students to have meaningful, respectful discussions. As a teacher and in her research as a social scientist, her primary question is ‘why’: “Why can’t we deal with this problem that we’ve known about for so long? If we don’t know the why’s, we’ll continue to develop solutions that are inadequate, that don’t get to the root of the problem.” 

We all play a role in the climate crisis but also in the potential for solutions, she says. It’s a monumental task requiring a collective rethinking of our global political and economic systems, corporate structures and power relations. As individuals, we must embrace new models for our daily lives, which might include shopping locally and shopping less, riding your bike, taking public transit or carpooling, and rethinking your air travel. She suggests, however, that more than anything, we have to act as citizens and act collectively, which includes voting for climate leaders and getting involved in the political process to demand the kinds of sweeping changes that will be necessary to really begin to address climate change and make sure no one is left behind.   

“Because climate change touches upon every aspect of our society, everyone’s got to be part of this,” says Ervine, adding that the classroom is a great place to ignite solutions.

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