Concordia’s climate-smart approach to education

Protests for climate change in Sept. 2022 inspired many students to demand sustainability. Photo by Thomas Vaillancourt / The Concordian

How experts at Concordia evaluate the university’s response to the climate crisis and its sufficiency.

At a time when the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident, educational institutions such as Concordia University are at the forefront of integrating climate action into their academic and operational frameworks. The need to adapt and respond to these environmental challenges is reshaping the landscape of education, prompting a reevaluation of traditional practices, and spurring innovative approaches to sustainability.

At Concordia, this shift is evident in the efforts to incorporate climate change understanding and adaptation into the curriculum. Dr. Alexandra Lesnikowski, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Environment, leads this charge. “My expertise is around the notion of climate change adaptation. Essentially, I study how governments and other types of actors are responding to the unavoidable impacts of a changing climate,” she explained. Her work underscores the importance of equipping students with the knowledge and tools to navigate a world increasingly shaped by climate-induced changes.

Lesnikowski, who also leads a team of researchers at the Concordia Climate Change Adaptation Lab, emphasized the evolving nature of educational responses to climate change. “We [researchers] essentially look at how we deal with things like extreme heats, floods and wildfires, and some of the changing environmental risks that we’re seeing evolve around us now,” she said. This approach is not just about understanding the phenomena, but about developing practical solutions at the community and policy levels, such as creating resilient infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events, formulating policies for sustainable urban planning, and implementing community-based environmental education programs.

However, Dr. Mitchell McLarnon, a faculty member of Concordia’s education department, offers a contrasting viewpoint. He expresses concern about the university’s “hyperactive optimism” approach to climate action. McLarnon stresses the importance of recognizing the environmental cost of modern practices, such as the digitalization of data. “How many people are deleting their emails? Things aren’t in the cloud—they live in a data farm that requires a lot of cooling,” he pointed out. 

In response to such concerns, Lesnikowski acknowledged the ongoing discussions within the university about the environmental impact of academic practices. “Yes, I think we’re seeing increasingly that universities and research disciplines more broadly are having this conversation about what the environmental implications are of our sort of business-as-usual practices concerning travel, certainly, but also material resource intensity for things like research programs,” she stated.

As Concordia navigates these challenging waters, the perspectives of experts like Lesnikowski and McLarnon are crucial. While Lesnikowski focuses on educating and empowering students to be agents of change in a climate-impacted world, McLarnon calls for immediate, tangible actions. 

Their insights reflect a broader dialogue in the educational sector about the role and responsibility of institutions in combating climate change. The steps taken by Concordia today will not only determine its sustainability, but also shape the environmental code of conduct of its students, the future guardians of our planet.

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