Climate leadership on campus and in the world

An image of a person standing in shodow in an ice cave, with the words "Climate Action Plan" to the left of the image.

Deadly heatwaves. Devastating wildfires. Destructive storms, floods and droughts.

It will hardly come as a shock that the planet is in the midst of a climate crisis.

What might surprise is the big, bold statement on climate change made by one of British Columbia’s smaller universities as well as its commitment to make climate action, resilience, adaptation and mitigation a central part of its mission.

Royal Roads University’s Climate Action Plan 2022-2027, released Feb. 10, 2022, lays a path to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions at its forested Colwood campus but also to ensure every student and graduate feels confident and equipped to make a difference. Learn more about the plan.

“We know the climate emergency poses an extreme threat to every facet of our global society. The level of this challenge is unlike any humanity has faced. It’s a social, environmental, health and economic threat, and there’s no time to waste,” says Royal Roads President and Vice-Chancellor Philip Steenkamp.

“Royal Roads is taking a stand. We’re going to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, incorporate climate change and climate solutions wherever we can, and equip our students to become powerful climate leaders.”

GHG emissions reductions, climate education & transparency

Among the measures that follow Steenkamp’s declaration are commitments to:

  • reduce RRU’s GHG emissions by 65 per cent (from 2010 levels) by 2025, 80 per cent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050;
  • increase the university’s climate resilience by doing risk assessments and developing a climate preparedness and adaptation strategy within three years and sharing this knowledge with others;
  • pilot innovative solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation; and
  • make climate change education and capacity building a strategic direction for RRU’s academic mandate.

And according to its plan, Royal Roads has no intention of going it alone, vowing to work with “other alliances, groups or networks to identify mutual areas of interest and opportunities to lead provincial, national and international efforts to promote climate action.”

Primary among those is the university’s commitment to “Indigenous collaboration and paired governance. [To] connect and consult with Indigenous communities to identify what their climate change plans and priorities are; [and] collaborate on shared organizational/governance model.”

“We know we have a great deal to learn from Indigenous peoples, from their ways of knowing, their science and their traditional practices that take care of the Earth,” Steenkamp says. “Partnering with them on climate action is crucial — there’s no way we would or could do this without them.”

‘Indigenous knowledge is family knowledge’

Asma-na-hi Antoine (Toquaht Nation) agrees. Director of Indigenous Engagement at RRU, she says the effects of colonization have “disengaged the understanding of how things are connected and why they’re connected and why we have this relationship with Mother Earth.”

“A lot of the information that we are talking about, at the grassroots level, Indigenous people have been talking about this and different ways of paying respect and honour back to Mother Earth,” says the member of the Toquaht Nation on Nuu-chah-nulth lands. “We’re all one, we’re all connected. So, if we are all connected, we are responsible for each other and for Mother Earth.”

Antoine says RRU is committed to ongoing collaboration and listening to what climate action means with the local nations. "There is a commonality in the sense of urgency, a responsibility, and holding ourselves accountable every day. It becomes part of our lives — not part of our work but part of our lives and our way of being."

And the university will work with the First Nations on whose traditional lands it sits and engage based on their terms, she says.

“From generation to generation, Indigenous knowledge is family knowledge, and it's about working and observing and reporting within your own family," Antoine says. "To get out of this crisis, we must watch and listen and observe how Indigenous people have been doing this since time immemorial. Their practices and way of being are that we don't just live for ourselves — we live for our families, our communities, and importantly for Mother Earth.”

President Steenkamp says he and the university will collaborate with Indigenous people and use RRU's research and teaching resources to face the historic challenge to reconcile of which the community is part, and the rest of the planet.

‘Our role is to lead by example’

“It is courageous to have everything there, to be transparent — both the successes that inspire change and the failures that we can learn from,” says Maria Bremner, Royal Roads’ Manager, Research and Innovation, who co-chaired development of the Climate Action Plan with Dr. Robin Cox, professor in RRU’s Faculty of Social and Applied Sciences.

“I think it’s fundamental to our credibility, to our mission statement and what we say we’re about,” she says. “If we’re about changemaking and trying to solve the complex challenges of our time, climate change is the most complex, challenging, critical issue of our time.”

While the Climate Action Plan’s emissions-based targets are striking — “That’s what resonates,” she notes — Bremner says that it’s through educating students that RRU can have its greatest impact. 

“Higher education has a unique role in social transformation, education and in building awareness and engagement. And that, in my opinion, is the biggest opportunity that Royal Roads has to effect change on this important topic,” she says.

“Those climate competencies that will be needed now and in the future are not just related to those who are interested in going into climate policy, they’re relevant to everybody in every [educational] program.”

RRU provides a significant amount of climate related programs and teaching, such as its Bachelor of Business Administration in Innovation and Sustainability, Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management, and Master of Arts in Climate Action Leadership, to name a few. A RRU education will further embrace social transformation, by embedding climate at the heart of the learning experience.

‘We all have an urgent responsibility’

“Universities have a much larger role to play in moving the dial on climate action through education, research and outreach because, really, that is our mandate as post-secondary institutions,” says Cox, program head for the Master of Arts in Climate Action Leadership.

“One of the things we know is that education can be transformative both for the individual students who take our programs, and for the lives, businesses, institutions and communities they touch,” she says. “We have an opportunity to not just speak about leadership but to demonstrate leadership and to demonstrate what is possible through our actions. By building the knowledge and capacity of our students and staff we can amplify the potential for positive change locally, nationally, and globally.”

“And that really is our where Royal Roads’ most important contributions lie, in our ability to inspire and empower leaders in all sectors, at all levels. Leaders who will tackle this crisis head on and help build a greener, more resilient, more equitable world.”

Adaptation is key, says Cox, who is also director of Royal Roads’ Resilience by Design Lab.

“We must also understand how the university as an institution can adapt, but then how do we support students, faculty, staff and our neighbouring communities?” she says. “How do we support them, coming up with real climate solutions with the focus on building the adaptability and resilience of businesses, communities and institutions?

“Climate change impacts all of us,” Cox says, “and we all have a responsibility — an urgent responsibility, I would say — to do as much as we can to address it.”