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HBCUs Form Partnership to Address Climate Change in Vulnerable Communities

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"We have a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that's not polluted or damaged, and by taking an all-of-the-above approach to develop homegrown energy and steady, responsible steps to cut carbon pollution, we can protect our kids' health and begin to slow the effects of climate change so we leave a cleaner, more stable environment for future generations."   President Barack Obama, June 25, 2013

On Tuesday the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (TSU), the nation's third largest public Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) launched its Climate Education Community University Partnership (CECUP), a consortium of public and private universities and vulnerable communities located on the Gulf Coast and South Atlantic Region of the United States (TX, LA, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, VA, DC, MD, VI). The consortium is supported by a $150,000 planning grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The HBCU climate partnership rollout coincides with the release of President Obama's Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University--a plan that proposes cutting carbon pollution and at the same time supporting the environment, economy and public health--and protecting cities and the vulnerable that are on the front line of climate change, including the health of our children. The broad goals of the President's plan is to cut carbon pollution, prepare the country for the impacts of climate change, and lead international efforts to address global climate change. Taking matters into his hands, the President's plan directs EPA to work closely with states, industry and other stakeholders to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants--a major source of greenhouse gas pollution.   The plan also supports investments and aid in building climate-resilient communities--communities that are better able to bounce back from disasters and disruptions in a sustainable way and maintain a good quality of life for all.

Why an HBCU climate partnership? Clearly, higher education has a major role to play in climate mitigation-- preventing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and now must take the lead in climate adaptation--preparing for and responding to impacts of climate change. It has been less than two years since the Why HBCUs Need to Step Up on Climate Change blog challenged historically black colleges and universities to do more on what is certainly the defining environmental justice challenge of the twenty-first century. Many of the HBCUs and the communities in which they are located find themselves on the frontline of climate assaults. The CECUP fills a void in climate science education at HBCUs and vulnerable low-wealth and people of color communities by (1) creating and expanding an innovative and interdisciplinary partnership; (2) assessing current climate change knowledge in communities where HBCUs are located; (3) collaboratively developing a strategic plan to shift climate change knowledge and behavior at HBCUs and the low-wealth and vulnerable communities; and (4) developing and implementing a national model for climate change and climate education for vulnerable populations and at-risk communities.

Generally, HBCUs are located in predominately black, low-wealth communities stretching from Pennsylvania to Texas. The location of  HBCUs also maps closely with environmental and climate vulnerability. The vast majority of the 105 HBCUs are found in the southern states--a vulnerable region of the country where intense hurricanes, drought, flooding, and other climate-sensitive hazards are commonplace. Climate-related disasters in the South have outnumbered those in other regions of the U.S. annually in both scale and magnitude by a ratio of almost 4:1 during the past 10 years. Weather-related disasters are growing in frequency and intensity. Weather disasters alone cost the nation $110 billion in 2012. Each year communities along the Gulf Coast states are hit with tropical storms, hurricanes and flooding forcing millions to flee to higher ground with many of the worst effects of climate change felt in the region's poorest communities.

The climate partnership builds on work begun at the HBCU Climate Change Student Conference held at Dillard University in April 2013. A recent article asked, "Does Climate Change Disproportionately Do Harm to African Americans?" The answer to that question is, "yes." Numerous studies document the unequal burden of climate change and the differential application of climate policies on African American communities. For example, The Wrong Complexion for Protection book documents eight decades of differential response to man-made and natural disasters, including climate-related disasters. Future climate change impacts could detrimentally affect air quality and thereby harm human health. This is no small point given the health disparities that exist in our society--especially asthma which is already extremely high in the black community. African Americans were 30% more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic Whites, in 2010. The Office of Minority Health reports that in 2009 African Americans were three times more likely to die from asthma related causes than the whites. From 2003-2005, African American children had a death rate 7 times that of non-Hispanic white children. African Americans had asthma-related emergency room visits 4.5 times more often than whites in 2004. And black children are 3.6 times more likely to visit the emergency department for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic white children.

A 2009 Oxfam study reports that poverty and climate hazards form a 13-states high-risk climate change "hot spot" in the country, including impact of drought, flooding, hurricanes and sea-level rise. The 2012 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Climate Change, Environmental Challenges and Vulnerable Communities report also found communities of color face a "perfect storm" of poor health, socioeconomic barriers and climate-related challenges. Global warming is expected to increase ground level ozone and double the number of cities that exceed air quality standards. Experts predict global warming will increase the number of "bad air days" by as much as 155 percent in some cities. Global warming is also predicted to increase heat-related deaths. A June 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions found heat-related deaths are on the rise. More than 43 percent of African Americans live in "urban heat island" compared to only 20 percent of whites. Nationally, African Americans have a 5.3 percent higher prevalence of heat-related mortality than whites, and 64 percent of this disparity is traced to disparities in prevalence of home air conditioning.

Ironically, the average African American household emits 20 percent fewer greenhouse gases than its white counterparts. Yet, they bear a disproportionate burden in hosting "dirty" coal fired power plants. More than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur. In comparison, 56 percent of whites and 39 percent of Latinos live in such proximity to a coal-fired power plant. Coal is dirty--accounting for about 40 percent of our electricity supply but 80 percent of electricity-related greenhouse gases. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury air pollution, accounting for roughly 40 percent of all mercury emissions nationwide. Moving away from coal-fired power plants would not only have greenhouse gas reduction benefits but would have additional health benefits by removing a major source of mercury pollution, a neurotoxin especially harmful to children and developing fetuses. Moving away from "dirty coal" would also go a long way in addressing energy apartheid that hits communities of color especially hard and is often overlooked in national climate action plans.

The HBCU climate partnership will engage scholars, practitioners and community leaders from around the nation to support the development of a multi-university partnership focused on educating HBCU stakeholders, community leaders and emerging leaders (youth and students) about the environmental, health and social causes, impacts and consequences of climate change, mitigation and adaptation strategies, and community resilience.  

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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