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‘Everything is interconnected’

A Q&A with Memorial's sustainability and climate action officer

Campus and Community

By Sandy Woolfrey-Fahey

Justin Dearing is Memorial’s new sustainability and climate action officer under the university’s newly established Sustainability and Climate Action Office.

The Gazette recently interviewed Mr. Dearing to find out how spending time in the Arctic and meeting with Indigenous elders instilled in him a sense of responsibility towards the planet, how he is defining the new office through “action” and what he thinks is the biggest environmental threat today.

SWF: Tell us a little about yourself.

JD: My early career was in the not-for-profit sector. I’ve worked side-by-side with some of the most passionate and dedicated volunteers in Newfoundland and Labrador and it’s shown me that nothing works without engagement at the ground level with the people whose lives are intertwined with the issues.

My first mentor, Robert O’Brien, co-founder of Ocean Net, taught me events and initiatives simply aren’t enough. If there isn’t direct action coming out of something, then you’re wasting the opportunity to create lasting change. Simply put, waiting to make a difference is the one thing that guarantees you never will.

Geoff Green, polar explorer and founder of Students on Ice, taught me the difference between planning and preparedness; the role a team plays in the most challenging environments; and how flexibility is key to navigating challenges beyond your control.

SWF: How did you become interested in environmental work and what’s inspired you?

JD: My career started with the Conservation Corps N.L. in 2005. I led a team of youth helping people understand complicated issues like climate change.

Some of the most impactful experiences I’ve had in climate action came during my time with the Students on Ice. I’ve sailed into Arctic communities in Canada and Greenland as a white, privileged southerner and witnessed the impact of climate change on a human level.

I’ve sat with Indigenous elders who demonstrated patience, kindness and compassion despite describing the climate consequences decimating their communities. It is one of the most humbling and emotional experiences I’ve had.

It left me with a sense of responsibility that lives in every choice I make and how when you add up all those choices, you see life-changing results.

Justin Dearing jumping up high on a mountain in the Torngat Mountains National Park
Justin Dearing at the Komaktorvik Fiord in Torngat Mountains National Park.
Photo: Submitted

SWF: What’s your vision for the Sustainability and Climate Action Office?

JD: Honestly, in one word: action. People are tired of inaction, surface level conjecture and long, drawn out processes.

The university supports this office being a place of action, tangible results, and a connecting point not just for internal initiatives, but also for the greater Newfoundland and Labrador community that the university serves.

I want the office to be an energetic collaborator for the many organizations (internal and external) that are fighting every day for sustainability and climate innovation.

I envision the office as a place where students drop in to learn about sustainability and climate action initiatives, sign up for an event or volunteer with a partnering organization.

Change needs to happen, and I want this office to be a hub for that.

SWF: What’s the biggest environmental threat today and how can we overcome it?

JD: It’s easy to point a finger at the biggest culprit, the biggest problem, or the group that is “supposed” to be fixing it. We don’t point that finger at ourselves nearly enough and ask, “What am I doing about this? Am I hurting or helping?”

I believe the largest threat today is that we have seven billion people all thinking and acting like their choices don’t make a difference. For me, this is a huge opportunity.

Whatever our choices are, they add up, so we need to focus on the choices we’re making. A university’s choices are defined by its policies so we’ll be working on the policies that need to grow, adapt and change.

A photo taken during Justin Dearing’s Antarctic expedition in 2014 after sailing across the Drake Passage from Ushuaia, Argentina.
Photo: Submitted

SWF: How do you plan to engage with the university community to advance the mandate of your office?

JD: Collaboration will be the engine of our office. Our team is small, but we have so many assets to tap into to advance initiatives, policy changes and engagement opportunities.

I had an incredible meeting with the Memorial Climate Action Coalition and I’m eager to support their efforts and collaborate wherever possible.

There are so many opportunities to collaborate with students, faculty and staff at Memorial and I can’t wait to uncover them.

I also believe there will be significant opportunities to engage with community organizations and look forward to exploring those opportunities.

To read more about the Sustainability and Climate Action Office, visit here.

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