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Students and staff turn to University for change

On Friday 20 September 2019, globally coordinated student strikes took place to protest the lack of government action to combat the climate crisis. On this day, staff and students from across the University took to the Piazza to join the strike. An announcement shown on the Big Screen from the University’s Provost Professor Christine Ennew revealed that the University of Warwick had declared an official climate emergency. In the declaration, the University has shown commitment to zero net carbon from direct emissions and from the energy purchased by 2030, and to zero net carbon from direct and indirect emissions by 2050.

We have a responsibility as a community and organisation to help combat climate change through our individual actions, our research and teaching, and how we run and develop our university"

University of Warwick Climate Emergency Declaration | Professor Christine Ennew, Provost

Our School is really supportive of the University’s step towards putting the necessary processes in place for addressing the climate challenges currently facing us. We are also proud that this shift towards University-wide action has been led by three student societies comprising a number of GSD students: GLOBUS, Warwick Global Sustainable Development Society and Climate Reality, along with the support of members of staff.

Earlier this year, the three societies formed the Climate Emergency Coalition, encouraging the University to recognise a state of climate emergency and to commit to net zero emissions by 2030. After a series of statements, petitions and motions, the Climate Emergency Coalition has made a real difference to the University’s approach towards climate change, first influencing the Students' Union's declaration of a climate emergency in July 2019, followed by the University-wide declaration in September 2019.

Todd Olive, a final year GSD student and Editor-in-Chief of GLOBUS Warwick, looks back on the series of events that led to the coalition being formed. "The declaration by the city of Bristol that they’d seek to achieve net zero emissions by 2030 was a really inspirational moment for the three co-ordinators, in terms of demonstrating the bottom-up change needed to achieve successful mitigation."

"All of our groups had different strengths and connections in terms of building support for and making change in different communities within and around the university"

"All of our groups had different strengths and connections in terms of building support for and making change in different communities within and around the University, which ultimately showed to the University’s decision-makers that our movement touched every corner at Warwick, and indeed went to the very heart of our identity as an international leader in innovation and progress."

Joaquín Salido Castilla, a third year GSD student and former President of Warwick's Global Sustainable Development Society, also notes the impact of collaboration on change. "Talking about environmental issues has always been associated with a lack of hope of real change", Joaquín says. However, "the coalition that the three societies formed made it feel, for the first time, that a tangible improvement could be achieved".

"We believed in what we were doing and time has shown us that we were right to! This is the kind of experience I dreamt of before starting University and I now see that being a student can be an empowering experience. I believe real change can happen in the real world and, perhaps, all it will take is ambitious people that believe in what they do, like we did."

"The world needs brave and committed leadership – carbon-based ‘business as usual’ is no longer a viable option for our planet or the human economy it supports"

Asked about the announcement, Dr Alastair Smith, Senior Teaching Fellow in GSD and a University College Union (UCU) official said that “the UCU had been delighted to help promote the student campaign among staff, and act as a co-sponsor for the delivery of the petition to University Council. I was personally very pleased with the positive ambition set by the University, which compares very favourably with the UK Government’s woefully inadequate national targets. I sincerely hope this leadership will inspire similar commitments, also based on the necessity of scientific consensus, from Coventry University, Coventry City Council and the other larger business institutions in the region. Jaguar Land Rover, for example, has a difficult transition to make in the current economic and ecological climate, but there is no question about the necessity of radical re-imagination. The world needs brave and committed leadership – carbon-based ‘business as usual’ is no longer a viable option for our planet or the human economy it supports”.

The work of students and staff to encourage the University's declaration is evidence that the action necessary to address climate change can start on a local scale. David McGill, GSD alumnus and Co-Campaigns Director of the Climate Reality Campus Corps, believes that the collective contribution of the societies, academic staff and students created "an interdisciplinary and truly grassroots movement, which, in my opinion, strengthened our mission purpose and allowed for our proposals to be best received by the University."

David adds: "While individuals may feel that their own voices are insufficient to realise tangible outcomes on a large scale, when joined together they provide a powerful impetus for change. Especially, as students are the primary stakeholders for any university institution, which in turn makes a grassroots movement created by students that much harder to be ignored."

The effort to make a tangible improvement has continued beyond the declaration from the University. Warwick's Sustainability team, GLOBUS and the Global Sustainable Development Society have since worked with Coventry University to discuss the climate emergency and the future. We look forward to seeing what will happen next as this cross-collaboration between students, staff, societies and universities continues.

If you’d like to find out more about how the three societies worked together with staff to encourage the climate emergency declaration from the University, please see here.