Scholar Spotlight - Aly Muhammad Sayani

Laidlaw Scholar Aly Sayani on understanding how political orientation affects environmental attitudes and addressing global issues with compassion.
Scholar Spotlight - Aly Muhammad Sayani

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Aly Muhammad Sayani, a University of Toronto Laidlaw Scholar, on understanding how political orientation affects environmental attitudes and addressing global issues with compassion.

Research title: Linking Political orientation and Environmentalism: An analysis of changing environmental attitudes and subsequent party support in Canada

Canada is a significant world player in emissions contributions, yet it has an incredibly poor track record in dealing with its emissions problem. Given the presence of federalism in Canada, where the majority of legislative power lies in the hands of provinces, I was driven to investigate how varying public opinion and varying interests by province may affect Canada's ability to deal with its emissions problem. 

Thus, my research aimed to provide an updated understanding on the link between environmental attitudes and political orientation on a federal level, whilst also taking interprovincial circumstances into account, an aspect often overlooked in previous studies on the topic. Through a review of existing literature and analysis of federal election studies data from 2015 and 2019, the study has generated some significant conclusions. The first conclusion was that federalism is a key limiting factor in the progress of Canada's environmental policy, with Alberta and Saskatchewan, two of Canada's largest emitters, remaining consistently opposed to pro-environmental policy, both in the political arena and in public opinion. Secondly, in the last 20 years there has been a growing consensus on environmental concern along the ideological spectrum, with data showing consistent increasing environmental concern among those who identify as right leaning. Thirdly, whilst there is increasing consensus on the ideological spectrum, environmental concern along the party spectrum has become increasing polarized in the last 20 years.

These conclusions are significant in their real-world impact by illustrating the need to tackle growing polarization along the party spectrum regarding environmental attitudes, and highlights the areas where grassroots environmental movements and organization should devote their resources. This will help Canada move towards greater interprovincial consensus on environmental policy.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

Growing greenhouse gas emissions are contributing negatively to climate change worldwide at an alarming rate, and the inequality between the countries being dealt the greatest impact and those contributing to the problem is stark. Canada is one of world’s largest emitters per capita, yet it has struggled to limit its emissions. Being from Pakistan, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate-related disasters, I see frequently the damage climate disasters impose, and the risks they will continue to pose for the rest of my family based there. As a Shia Ismaili Muslim, our spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, has made it a key facet of his development projects, the work of which has been crucial in mitigating the impacts of climate change in high-risk countries, and whose directive has interested me for many years. 

Having always been interested in people’s behaviour, this research allowed me to tie together the link between how people feel politically and ideologically, and how this might influence their support for pro-environmental policy, which is key to reducing emissions. 

It is also clear to me, as a student of international affairs, that tackling climate change is an incredible political challenge given the array of interests and livelihoods that have to be taken into consideration when constructing environmental policy and messaging on environment-related issues. I am deeply interested in how this challenge can be approached in a fair yet urgent manner, taking all stakeholders into account. 

Real-life leadership lessons

For several years now, I have found myself in positions of leadership in various contexts. The first arena for such work was in my local Ismaili Jamat (community), working within and then running our local youth club, which involved running weekly activities and monthly engagement events for the youth in the community. I believe this was the most formative of my leadership experiences, as it taught me the struggles of managing a volunteering team, and that consistent support both from above and from within your team was never guaranteed. The roles also involved organizing events for the whole Jamat and teaching religious education classes.

An important skill developed from my other leadership roles within the Jamat, was how to constructively engage with bureaucratic administrative structures, that don’t always facilitate the growth of your initiative/program. It is incredibly important to remain patient, but not to lose ambition when faced with bureaucracy. 

These skills stayed with me as I grew into other positions of management, working as VP of Community and Environment in my University’s Residence Council, and currently within the Aga Khan Economic Planning Board for Canada. Leadership is not only about being a good team leader, but also a good teammate. 

An intergenerational event I organized at my mosque to help bridge connection between the youth and the elders in our community, through the sharing of stories and playing games. You can see me bottom right.
An intergenerational event I organized at my mosque to help bridge connection between the youth and the elders in our community, through the sharing of stories and playing games. You can see me bottom right.

Top leadership tips

⚡️ Transparency: Keep your team updated and make them feel included in decisions, be clear and open about your directive, and your team will feel more invested in their work. 

⚡️ Be personable: A distant leader is difficult to engage with, and difficult to ask for help. Be a friend, and show some charisma. 

⚡️ Show genuine care for your team and your cause: Both outsiders and insiders can feel when someone genuinely believes in their cause, and cares about their team. Show empathy and desire and it will be returned.

⚡️ Pragmatism: Try to think a step ahead, anticipate problems, don’t always wait to be told what to do.

⚡️ Tenacity: You will face several hurdles at every step, whether from outside or from within your team. Show consistent determination in the face of these hurdles in order to succeed. Learn how to jump!

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

The Laidlaw Foundation has enshrined in it the aim to facilitate the growth of the next generation of global leaders, through independent research and leadership in action projects. To be a Laidlaw Scholar is to engender the values of ethical and compassionate leadership, to have a vision for a better world that you have the power to help create, and to continuously tackle the world’s most pressing matters. Through being a Laidlaw Scholar, I have had the opportunity to show leadership through research, and turn passion into impact, and it has and will continue to be a key pillar in the growth of my skill set and character throughout my career. 

Which leaders inspire you and why?

The leader that has inspired me the most in my life and career is the Aga Khan. Aside from him being my spiritual leader as the Imam of the Ismailis, he has dedicated his life to improving the well-being of the poor in marginalized communities around the world through the vast Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The ethos that runs through the development network is that of service to others and tolerance & compassion to all, principles which have shaped my own identity. In my lifetime, I have seen (and been a victim of) growing Islamophobia, which the Aga Khan tackles by promoting pluralism, diversity and tolerance in his work. Not only does the Development Network carry out economic development projects, but also education development, environmental protection, habitat restoration, restoration of heritage sites, awards for architecture, and awards for the promotion of pluralism. 

Another leader, maybe less well-known in the world but an unsung hero to me, is my mother. An incredible nurse, she inspires me every day with her kindness and determination, and she has worked very hard to put me through school. I hope her love and compassion can shine through me as I help others in my career.

A picture with my religious education class on world book day!
A picture with my religious education class on world book day!

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

I shall try my best through my work and my relationships to help create a world where dialogue and cooperation come to mind before polarization and difference. So much struggle and conflict are seen by populations fighting for borders drawn far before their time, from Kashmir to Ukraine, and with far less care for future generations. I wish to see a future where such conflict is reduced, and common interests can be found. However naive it may sound, I hope my generation can break the cycle of thought that discounts our future selves and instead puts the interests of the next generation as high as our own. My lifetime will be rife with conflict, over refugee crises, food insecurity, water insecurity, and border disputes. I hope these conflicts can be overcome with dialogue and cooperation, and with respect for our planet. Having worked with refugees, I wish to see a world where a refugee is seen not as an alien, but as a brother or a sister, and we can overcome division to find our shared humanity every step of the way. 

Dressing up for Halloween at local refugee centre
Dressing up for Halloween at local refugee centre


Quick-fire Questions

📺 Currently binging: Severance. Probably the best show I have seen this year, incredibly creative and innovative, and thrilling.

📚 My top book recommendations: The Righteous Mind - Jonathan Haidt // The Forty Rules of Love - Elif Shafak.  Both these books, one through psychological commentary, and one through a beautiful medieval journey of love, taught me a lot about people and myself. 

🎵 My current anthem: Tuscan Leather - Drake

 🎧 Podcast obsession: The Off-Menu Podcast//The Rest is Politics. The first podcast is my go-to for journeys, and has genuinely made me burst out laughing on a plane. Comedians discussing food is just as funny and ridiculous as it sounds. The Rest is Politics is probably the most engaging politics podcast I’ve come across, and is a great lesson on how two politicians can have respectful disagreement, debate and still provide insightful commentary into British and global politics. 

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: My New Cat. He looks like the animal version of a latte. 


You can find Aly on LinkedIn. Aly is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at the University of Toronto. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholarship.

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