Climate Crisis is an HBCU Issue, Too
Communities of color, & especially Black communities, live on the front lines of the climate crisis - & HBCUs are uniquely positioned to defend them
Dr. G.S. Potter | Senior Editor
Climate crisis isn’t a green issue. It’s a Black issue. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), whether they realize it or not, are stepping up to protect Black communities from the effects of environmental destruction by designing innovative solutions to stop it.
Communities of color, and especially Black communities, are living on the front lines of the climate crisis and HBCUs are uniquely positioned to defend them. According to the Princeton Student Climate Initiative ….
Communities of color are disproportionately victimized by environmental hazards and are far more likely to live in areas with heavy pollution. People of color are more likely to die of environmental causes, and more than half of the people who live close to hazardous waste are people of color.
Princeton also reports that more than one million Black people live within half of a mile of natural gas facilities, and more than 6.7 million live in one of the 91 counties with oil refineries. Black Americans are 75 percent more likely to live in “fence-line” communities where air and noise pollution is prevalent, and Black children suffer from asthma at almost twice the rate as White children.
While Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities experience more damage resulting from the climate crisis, the environmental movement and the funding dispersed to it has largely been centered around White people.
HBCU’s have sought to change that.
For example, in 2011, Dr. Beverly Wright, Executive Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Inc. and Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Distinguished Professor at Texas Southern University (Houston) launched the Historically Black College and University Climate Change Consortium. According to the Consortium website …
The Consortium was conceived to help raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities to develop HBCU students leaders, scientists and advocates on issues related to environmental and climate justice policies, community resilience, adaptation and other major climate change topics—especially in vulnerable communities in the southern United States where the vast majority of HBCUs are located and where more billion-dollar disasters occur than the rest of the country combined.
More than 90 percent of HBCUs are located within 10 southern states. The overwhelming majority of students attending these institutions come from within that state. These students come from the communities that are most impacted by environmental degradation, and HBCUs are training them to become leaders in a wide range of climate related fields such as Agricultural Science, Atmospheric Sciences, Computational Data-Enabled Sciences and Engineering, Integrated Environmental Science, Marine Science, and Environmental Justice. Indeed, an entire network of 19 Land-Grant HBCUs in 18 States enrolling over 112,000 undergraduate and graduate students emphasize concentrations in STEM, agriculture and environmental science fields related to resolving climate crisis impacts …
These scholars are fast becoming the leading environmental innovators and advocates in their communities, the nation, and through participation in meetings with international organizations such as the United Nations – the world. According to Nature ….
Nearly 20 percent of the nation’s Black population who hold an undergraduate degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) earned it at an HBCU institution, as did one-third of U.S. Black people with a PhD.
HBCUs are top tier institutions of learning that produce top tier talent. Success, even in the face of adversity, has never been the problem of Historically Black Colleges. Funding, on the other hand, is.
While HBCUs have, historically, been underfunded in relation to Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), it wasn’t until recently that this race-based gap in funding garnered nationwide attention.
As Dr. Willie E. May, Vice President for Research and Economic Development at Morgan State University explains to Diverse Education …
As we know, we in the HBCU community have not gotten our fair share of resources. Over the last decade, federal funding for Primarily White Institutions (PWIs) increased 20 percent. At the same time, support, which was always meager, has gone down for HBCUs by 20 percent. [HBCUs] get less than 1 percent of total federal allocation for research.
Recently, corporations such as Apple, Google, Home Depot and IBM have all launched efforts to provide funding for HBCUs in efforts to both close the funding gap and open up new pools of talent for their own workforce. The Federal Government is also stepping up its support for HBCUs and their role in combatting climate change and creating environmental justice. Many, though, are worried that their efforts are not enough.
For example, according to Science …
Taking aim at two goals at once, the Department of Energy (DOE) wants to launch an initiative both to address the climate crisis and increase diversity in the U.S. scientific workforce. In its 2022 budget request to Congress, DOE requests funds to create urban integrated field laboratories (IFLs) that would gather climate data in cities and build bridges to urban communities, including by collaborating with minority-serving universities, such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Biden’s Justice40 plan, which would have been implemented under the ambitious Build Back Better legislation (which was destroyed by Republicans and two rogue Democratic Senators), proposed funding and mobilizing HBCUs for participation in the battle against climate crisis and for expanding a green economy. The White House proposed that …
Justice40 is a whole-of-government effort to ensure that Federal agencies work with states and local communities to make good on President Biden’s promise to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.
The plan was to have money funneled through federal sources such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the Department of Housing and Urban Development Lead Hazard Reduction and Healthy Homes Grants, and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program. Additionally, the HBCU Green Fund was one of the 52 inaugural recipients of the Justice40 Accelerator inaugural grant fund.
While it’s promising to see HBCU programs receive funding through efforts like the Justice40 initiative, far more will be needed to truly close the gap between HBCUs and PWIs.
Similarly, there are concerns that President Biden’s Build Back Better program is not doing enough to meet the needs of HBCUs and other minority serving educational institutions. Inside Higher Ed reports …
In the current version of the budget reconciliation bill serving as the vehicle for Biden’s Build Back Better Act, HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions are slated to receive $27 billion in tuition subsidies, $1.45 billion for institutional aid and $2 billion to improve research and development infrastructure. Meanwhile, Biden proposed a total of $55 billion for HBCUs and other MSIs to upgrade research infrastructure and create research incubators for improving STEM education.
‘The number is just significantly lower than what we had hoped for,’ said Paul Jones, president of Fort Valley State University and vice chair of the Council of 1890 Presidents. ‘Along with the minority-serving institutions and the Hispanic-serving institutions, it's really sort of lumping us all into this one sector when we all have tremendous needs.’
HBCUs and their representatives fought hard to ensure their schools were positioned as cornerstones of the now passed Infrastructure Act and not as bargaining chips. Leaders of 1890 Land-Grant HBCUs were particularly active in that fight. So far, nearly $3 billion from the Infrastructure Act, for example, was directed to Digital Equity programs designed to close national broadband gaps hitting marginalized communities - with special focus on vulnerable populations neighboring or located in close proximity to HBCUs. That’s in addition to the nearly $3 billion in pandemic relief appropriated to these institutions during 2021. Still, HBCUs are, as usual, left to do more with less even as federal funding for them continues being unmatched by state governments, despite federal mandates for such.
Hence, the battle continues to close the funding gap between HBCUs and PWIs. Yet, the fact that these educational institutions are in the strongest position to act as rapid-response climate innovation labs and incubators for the green economy speaks volumes to a larger environmental justice struggle. HBCUs, though chronically underfunded, still produce generation after generation of Black researchers, experts and leaders in their home communities, across the nation, and all over the world. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are tackling climate crisis head on, even when the funding streams say they can’t. All they need to succeed in that endeavor is equitable funding.