CO2-energy / climate justice contention on Indigenously-backed fossil fuel projects

My PhD dissertation highlights the distinction between the CO2-energy and climate justice worldviews in climate change organizing.

Put briefly:

[C]limate justice (CJ) activists emphasized the linkages between climate change and other justice issues in both diagnosing the causes of climate change and in crafting their political strategy to control it, insisting that only revolutionary political and economic changes like the overthrow of capitalism will let humanity preserve a stable climate. This analysis and prescription is challenged by CO2-energy (CO2-e) activists who see climate change as fundamentally about fossil fuel energy, with a solution that lies in replacing coal, oil, and gas.

One area where the two viewpoints can be clearly distinguished is how to respond to Indigenously-backed fossil fuel energy projects. The climate justice viewpoint holds that environmentalists should be led by and not criticize Indigenous peoples. For them, if the Yaq̓it ʔa·knuqⱡi ‘it community in BC wants to build a coal mine, it is at least much harder to oppose while maintaining their values than the same project proposed by someone else. For CO2-e activists, it is about the fuel to be burned and not the identity of those benefitting, and so it is unproblematic to resist fossil fuel projects regardless of their backers.


Reading my dissertation, step by step

Step #1: Learn a bit of the context and background to climate change politics

I know throwing a whole PhD thesis at someone gives them a lot to handle, especially if it is written in an unfamiliar academic style. Nonetheless, I took pains all through my PhD process to come up with a product which would be comprehensible and meaningful to the community of climate activists.

Several posts down the line, we will come to the “meta question” which motivates the chapter about the ethics of what ought to be done. As someone new to the document and/or climate change policy, I would start by looking at what I considered important explanatory text but which my committee directed I should remove from an over-long document:

Structural Barriers to Avoiding Catastrophic Climate Change

Basically, why is solving climate change a hard problem? We have governments that do an OK-to-decent job at most things, so why are they uniquely bad at caring for the climate long-term when its integrity is damaged by the use of fossil fuels? This first document explores that question in detail, and elaborates upon why old solutions aren’t working for this problem.

Making print copies of my dissertation

My print publication plans for the dissertation have become derailed.

Back when we made the fossil fuel divestment brief at U of T, we printed paper copies for the members of the committee considering the question and for U of T libraries and archives at the Toronto Reference Library’s Asquith Press.

Years ago, I attended a session on academic publishing led by representatives from some major scholarly presses. They said, among other things, that authors would have to pay about $8,000 out of pocket to have an index made; that authors need to apply for government grants to help pay for publication, and won’t be published if they don’t get them; that the process of getting a dissertation published will take about two years; and that the resulting trade paperback will be so specialized and expensive that only a handful of university library systems would ever buy it.

I wrote my dissertation because I think the contents are important and ought to be widely discussed. As such, it was always my plan to release it for free through whichever distribution channels might reach the most people.

I did plan to make paper copies at the Asquith Press, partly as thank-you gifts for major supporters and partly to donate to libraries and other organizations. Unfortunately, I learned on Saturday that “due to staffing changes within our department” the Asquith Press won’t be printing anything until May, and perhaps not even then. They referred me to some alternative printers, but the first one that got back to me wants $1,361 plus $168 shipping for their minumum order of 50 copies, which is about twice as many as I need even at a stretch.

Perhaps I will make one copy urgently to give to someone who wants it promptly on paper, then review the alternative printers to see if any can make the number of copies I want at a suitable price, and if not wait four months or more for Asquith to be back in service.

Free dissertation release

Official versions are forthcoming on the University of Toronto’s TSpace thesis hosting platform and on paper from the Asquith Press at the Toronto Reference Library, but I see no reason not to make my PhD dissertation available as a free PDF to anyone who is interested:

Persuasion Strategies: Canadian Campus Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaigns and the Development of Activists, 2012–20

I have been fighting for years to get this out into the world, so it makes no sense to wait for an arbitrary convocation date and then through further administrative delays.

If you are studying the fossil fuel divestment movement at universities or climate change activism generally in Canada, the US, and UK you may find the extended bibliography useful.

Pre-defence isolation

With my PhD defence 17 days away — and in a context where public health officials are urging masking and other precautions even though politicians are too timid to require it — I am going back to my protective protocol from earlier in the pandemic, avoiding all group events, wearing a mask whenever I leave the house, and broadly restricting going out to buying groceries and exercising.

It would be a huge pain and disappointment to get sick and need to re-schedule things, so hopefully I will be able to cross the finish line without getting sick again.

Defence booked

My PhD dissertation defence is booked for 2–4pm on December 2nd.

The defence is conducted by the examination committee, which consists of my PhD research committee plus an internal external examiner (from our department but not involved in my project) and external external examiner (from another university).

I will get a report from the external external a bit before the oral defence, and the most likely result of the proceedings is to be asked to make minor changes over a week.

In the interim, along with TA work, I will get ready for the final round of approval for use of direct quotes. To help people feel comfortable and protected during the interviews, I told people that they would get a chance to review direct quotes attributed to them prior to publication, with the option to have them included anonymously instead.

I will also prepare the LaTeX manuscript to print a couple of dozen copies at the Asquith Press at the Toronto Reference Library. I will give them to major supporters of the project, as well as Robarts Library and the U of T archives (as we did with the divestment brief).

I am also now giving serious thought to setting up a student coaching business. One-on-one guidance about planning and working through the term, as well as engaging with the countless enrichment opportunities at U of T that it is up to the student to go out and find, would provide something which is painfully absent at U of T. It would rely on skills which I already have from my own student and TA experience, and it would serve a need and a market which I know exists. It would also separate employment and my ability to pay rent, bills, and student loans from the politics of climate change within organizations. Instead of having to stress about finding an organization to work for where I endorse their strategy and they endorse my activist efforts, I could keep myself going with work that is independent of anybody else and devote the rest of my time to making a difference on climate change in areas I am good at (research and policy analysis) rather than those where I have little experience or skill (non-profit fundraising).

Teaching and writing

While my dissertation work is overwhelmingly done, the combination of residual writing up tasks and TA work is making this a pleasantly busy term and a reminder of Septembers past, including my own starts at UBC, Oxford, and U of T.

As of last night my dissertation is off to the external external examiner, whose six-week review is the last step before the defence: now expected in the last days of November or first days of December, right around my 39th birthday.