The Climate Crisis and the Canadian Classroom

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This is the third post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Daniel Macfarlane

We’re in a climate emergency. This isn’t just rhetorical hyperbole, but a statement backed by more than 13,000 scientists. Even the venerable publication Scientific American agreed to adopt the term earlier this year. Canada is particularly culpable for this crisis because of its petro-state status and hyper-consumerism. 

My research deals with the transborder history and politics of Canada-U.S. water and energy issues, lately involving climate change. But it is in my teaching role that I spend the most time addressing the climate emergency since I’m in an environmental and sustainability studies department (which has a climate change minor). This includes an introductory course that features a major climate change component, as well as senior courses such as the seminar I’m teaching this fall that concentrates on my campus’s carbon emissions. 

True, I have the advantage of teaching in an environment-focused setting that looks as much at the present and the future as the past. But all historians, regardless of experience in environmental history or history of science, can bring the climate emergency into their classroom. What I would like to do in this post is to suggest some areas, based on my teaching experiences and reading of recent literature, where climate change could be injected into Canadian history survey courses.

During the pandemic, I’ve read a wide range of new popular books about the climate crisis – from the technocratic solutions of Bill Gates to the Green New Deal advocacy of Kate Aronoff. Within those public-facing books, I noticed four key debates – or spectrums since they don’t have to be either-or questions – about tackling climate. These are illustrated below, with the ‘X’ marking where I land within each:

I could write a whole post about why I fall where I do. But that isn’t the point here. Instead, I’m going to offer strategies for infusing lectures, discussions, and assignments with aspects of those four debates. Probably the most obvious way to do that is enhance the emphasis on natural resources. Climate change, as well as our other big ecological problems, are tightly linked to how we use and consume resources. 

The most relevant type of resource when it comes to greenhouse gases is energy. Canadians have long been amongst the most profligate people in the history of the globe in terms of energy consumption (only some of which can be explained by Canada’s widely dispersed population and cold climate). Canada has also been a global production leader in several different energy forms, with hydroelectricity and oil likely the most well-known (though we could count uranium as well because of its role in nuclear power). 

To incorporate energy history, university instructors could go several routes, such as peppering it into lectures throughout the term, or create an entire section or module. It just so happens that the major energy eras and transitions line up pretty well with major periods of Canadian history extending deep back into the premodern period: animal/human muscle, wood, coal, hydro, fossil fuels, etc. Truthfully, energy could be the organizing principle for an entire survey course (and this book would make a great text).

The textbook “Building the Canadian Nation” by George W. Brown

The development of energy is intrinsically tied to common classroom themes in Canadian political history: federalism (disputes over provincial rights to harvest hydropower and fossil fuels); regional identity (Ontario Hydro, Hydro-Québec, and BC Hydro; the prairies and oil; coal on the east coast; etc.); Canada-U.S. relations (electricity, fossil fuel, and uranium exports). Many major topics that normally come up anyway, from the railways to free trade, are inherently about energy and environment, providing segues to wrestle with climate change and Canada’s contribution and response to it. 

Hydroelectric dams, fossil fuels, and pipelines have long wreaked havoc on First Nations communities. The history of energy developments therefore also dovetails with Canada’s history of settler and extractive colonialism. And discussions about reconciliation can relate to contemporary calls for a just transition away from fossil fuels. Tying in with the systemic vs. individual debate, other aspects of the history of social movements and human rights in Canada could be an entrée for grappling with climate change. 

Sticking with the systemic angle, another existing theme in the Canadian curriculum where climate change could clearly piggyback is the role of the state. The history of capitalism is yet another prevalent theme that can be merged with exploring climate change. The tension between government regulation and intervention versus the free market is already apparent in Canadian history and lends itself to talking about capitalism as the solution or the cause.   

For those addressing the history of technology, Canada has been at the forefront of a number of technological changes dealing with the extraction and burning of energy, from the world’s biggest hydropower stations a century ago to the tar sands today. Technology is why we have cheap energy. Cheap energy is a sine qua non of “modern” Canadian lifestyles, the reason why consumer products are (relative to their true cost) inexpensive and available. And cheap energy is a major reason, maybe the main reason, we have climate change. 

The extraction and production of energy – e.g., coal miners and oil roughnecks – connects with important themes in labour and class history, while the ways energy is consumed – such as household work or petro-masculinity – can be combined with themes in social and gender history. And how has cheap energy and the attendant assumptions of abundance practically and conceptually shaped modern Canadian society and Canadian identity?

Students are frequently interested in studying the differences between Canada and the United States. Canada’s social safety net and collectivism are often held up as distinctive from American individualism and privatization. But that may be the narcissism of small differences relative to the historic exploitation of natural resources, per capita levels of consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions; on those scores, to the rest of the globe the U.S. and Canada look pretty identical. When it comes time to teach about Canadian international history, for all the claims about Canada’s middle power or peacekeeper proclivities, it is in the realm of fossil fuels and climate change that Canada might actually be a superpower (but the bad kind). 

Another pedagogical approach is to look at past adaptations to a changing climate. That is, the climate has shifted in the past, and peoples living in the territory now called Canada had to figure out ways to cope. If you’re teaching the pre-Confederation survey, the Little Ice Age (roughly the 16th to the 18th centuries) caused changes to food acquisition and agriculture strategies, which in turn had social, political, and military knock-on effects. Resilience emerges as a theme to interlink cultural responses to climate change in the past and present. For those doing post-Confederation history, many of the climactic shifts we currently recognize were already occurring by the Second World War. The start of the Cold War is one of the candidates for dating the beginning of the Anthropocene, which could serve as an organizing topic or concept (this series will have more on the Anthropocene in future posts). 

What about some specific class exercises and assignments? Try integrating historical sources as indirect proxies for comparing climate from past to present. You might have heard of using ice cores, sediments, or tree rings to infer historic climatic conditions. But the types of records historians are likely more familiar with, such as paintings, diaries, ship or whaling log books, and fur trade fort journals, can also be revealing and double as a unique way to introduce undergrads to the use of primary sources. (A contributor to this series, Dagomar Degroot, has written extensively about the use of various textual records for climate history). 

Artistic representations can show glacial retreat or pollution levels, for example. Or, given the prominence of the fur trade in Canada’s history, using fort journals to compare past temperatures and change of seasons with the present could be an instructive way to expose students to both climate history and primary sources.

There are places online where some of those types of information are already organized for easy integration into your curriculum. For the pre-Confederation period, check out Canada’s Year Without a Summer. The titular year in question is 1816; the Tambora volcano erupted the previous year in Indonesia, leading to subsequent cold weather in early eastern Canada. This website was created by Alan MacEachern and Michael O’Hagan with course instructors in mind: it offers more than 120 sources, as well as guidance for how teachers could incorporate these into class. For the post-Confederation period, try Environment Canada’s National Climate Data and Information Archive which has (digital) reams of historical climate data. A professor could create an exercise or assignment, for example, in which students pick a location – such as their hometown or their university – and compare past and present weather/climate conditions. 

This is not an exhaustive list of ideas, but some easy ways to get started. Given the reality and urgency of the climate crisis, and its relevance to the lives and concerns of students, it is something all introductory history courses need to address. 

Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University, co-editor of The Otter-La loutre, and a member of the executive board of NiCHE, Network in Canadian History & Environment.

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