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Why HBCUs Need to Step Up on Climate Change

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Climate change is not only an environmental issue--it is also an issue of health, social justice, and human rights. Climate change amplifies existing inequalities--especially inequality that has left African Americans, Africa, and the African diaspora behind. Ironically, communities that contribute least to climate change, feel the negative impacts first, worst, and longest. The average African American household emits 20 percent fewer greenhouse gases than its white counterparts. However, the unequal burden of climate change hits African American communities especially hard. African Americans are at greater risks from energy price shocks, spending 30 percent more of their income on energy than whites. This is not an insignificant statistic since the average black household wealth is substantially lower than the average white household. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households.  

Generally, Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) are physically located in predominately black, low-wealth communities stretching from Pennsylvania to Texas. 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. Weather-related disasters are growing in frequency and intensity. Each year communities along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast states are hit with tropical storms and hurricanes forcing millions to flee to higher ground.

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. Keeping with our mission, it is not only important but necessary that HBCUs work collaboratively to find solutions to current and future environmental problems facing the most vulnerable in our society. Now, more than six years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast and drowned New Orleans in 2005, the scars of social inequality remain--and some have actually widened. African Americans and low-wealth households--the same groups that were most vulnerable before the storm--were hit hardest by flooding and have had the greatest difficulty returning and recovering from the disaster.

Climate change will exacerbate environmental health disparities and increase inequality between "haves" and "have-nots." Students at HBCUs should understand how weather-related disasters (heat waves, hurricanes, flooding, sea-level rise, droughts, ground-level ozone, airborne allergens, and other pollutants) impact public health (heat stress, injuries, drowning, vector, food, and water-borne diseases, water and soil salinization, ecosystem disruption, food and water shortages, respiratory disease exacerbation, asthma, bronchitis, mental health) -- increase social inequality (mass population movement, climate refugees, international conflict) as seen in the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa as well as the fault lines of vulnerability seen in recent droughts and heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods caused by Hurricane Irene along the eastern seaboard.

Climate change has created millions of refugees. More than 38.3 million women, men and children were forced to move, mainly by floods and storms. According to the 2011 Climate Change Vulnerability Index, the top 10 climate endangered countries are Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Cambodia, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and the Philippines. Africa is the most vulnerable region--occupying seven of the ten vulnerable countries vulnerable to climate change.   

Climate change threatens global security and heightens conflicts between nations. Today, there are an estimated two million malnourished children in the Horn of Africa which is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years. In Somalia alone 600,000 children are at risk of starvation and by August about 30,000 children were believed to have died this year from preventable diseases. The Dadaab Camp in Kenya now has a population of nearly 500,000 Somali refugees--a population larger than the City of New Orleans.  

The price tag for disasters is climbing. Global insured economic losses from climate-related disasters increased from $5 billion in 1970 to over $27 billion   in 2010.   A 2011 report from the Natural Resources Council puts the health cost of six U.S. climate events at $14 billion.   Climate change was a big share of the $109 billion in economic damage in 2010.   This is three times the costs in 2009.   The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reports that over 90 percent of all disaster displacement around the world in 2010 was caused by climate-related disasters.  

Getting CO2 and other co-pollutants under control and integrating air-quality (i.e., reduction in criteria pollutants   such as ozone, particulate matter; carbon monoxide; nitrogen oxides; sulfur dioxide, and lead) into climate change policy-making would result in disproportionate positive co-benefits to over-polluted communities. Climate change is a major global health threat. A 2011 report Climate Change and Your Health: Rising Temperatures, Worsening Ozone Pollution from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that unchecked global warming could increase ground-level ozone, threatening U.S. public health and the economy could cost approximately $5.4 billion in 2020. Climate change-induced ozone increases could result in 2.8 million additional serious respiratory illnesses, 5,100 additional infants and seniors hospitalized with serious breathing problems, and 944,000 additional missed school days in the United States in 2020.

Unfortunately, those who can least afford are already suffering the consequences. Although the developing countries make up 80 percent of world population, they are responsible for only one-fifth of historic global emissions. During COP 16, developed countries committed to contribute at least $100 billion per year to a Green Climate Fund for low-carbon and climate-resilient growth in developing countries. This voluntary fund is still being debated.

Finally, our goal is to position a HBCU climate consortium to take the lead in developing partnerships and collaboratives with other colleges and universities, nongovernmental organizations, government and the business community to train the next generation of leaders to develop solutions to climate-related and other environmental challenges--with an emphasis on social justice, health and sustainability. It is unlikely that the U.S. can achieve sustainability without addressing lingering social inequality--including environmental and health inequalities. We see just sustainability as a preferred strategy for bridging this wide gap--including the climate gap that hits the poor and people of color hardest. Environmental degradation is almost always linked to questions of human equality and quality of life. Throughout the world, those segments of society that have the least political power and are the most marginalized are selectively victimized by environmental crises. Social and environmental justice within and between nations should be an integral part of the policies and agreements that address climate change and promote sustainable development.

With initial support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, we have committed to build and grow a strong HBCU Climate Partnership.    



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Robert Bullard Social Media Pages: Facebook Page       Twitter Page       Linked In Page       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

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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