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Building a culture of environmental preparedness at HBCUs


Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have rarely been the center of as many news stories as they have in 2021 — but what’s been left out is climate change.

For example, the White House Initiative on HBCUs recently announced its eighth cohort of “HBCU Scholars.” Vice President Kamala Harris is a Howard alumna, billionaire Mackenzie Scott has donated millions to 22 different institutions, journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehsi Coates have joined the faculty at Howard and more. It’s good to see attention being paid to the significance of these educational institutions and for them to rise in the national consciousness.

However, this exciting moment obscures an unfortunate reality: After years of underfunding and institutional neglect, many of them are literally falling apart: ruptured pipes, broken sidewalks, campus blackouts and buildings that aren’t climate-controlled have become all too common. Rep. Alma Adams’ (D-N.C.) reflection that these issues are “not unique to any one of our institutions” after her decades as a professor at Bennett College is disheartening, yet accurate.

To attempt to address this, Adams and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) have introduced the Institutional Grants for New Infrastructure, Technology and Education for HBCU Excellence Act (IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act). Funding for HBCUs is also included in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. These efforts to shore up these vital institutions are praiseworthy indeed — but without addressing ways to ameliorate climate change, they’re lacking a vital component. 

Seventy-five of the 104 HBCUs in the nation are in Southeastern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The institutions in these states, along with the 10 HBCUs in Texas and Oklahoma, are facing higher risks from the negative impacts of our changing climate. These impacts include increases in the occurrence and severity of extreme weather events, accelerating sea-level rise, more extreme heat days, poorer air quality and higher energy demand.

For example, average daily temperatures across the South are increasing annually, and according to the recent report from the Intergovernmental Government Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we can expect more of that unless there are massive changes in behavior worldwide. By 2050, the Southeast region is projected to experience even more extreme heat days (heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit). Along with these concerns, coastal HBCUs must also contend with rising sea levels, changing coastal ecosystems and increased vulnerability to flooding and extreme weather events like hurricanes.

Deferred maintenance includes critical immediate upgrades at many institutions, but the impact would be much broader and more efficacious if HBCUs improve facilities and operations to withstand (and avoid, when possible) the impacts of climate change on our campuses. Every institution of higher education should already have an emergency operations plan. HBCUs must revisit their plans to be sure that those contingencies are in place in accordance with the most recent assessments of the IPCC. Then we’ve got to go a step further to plan for the role we will play in supporting our surrounding communities. Many HBCUs are embedded in socially and economically vulnerable communities that often lack key resources in times of crisis. It’s the responsibility of HBCU administrators to consider how to support both the campus and the local population at those times. Students, faculty, staff and local residents need to be trained in disaster preparedness as members of the university community. We should also consider how our campuses can provide relief from extreme weather and resources for evacuation when necessary.

Yes, it’s true that HBCUs face more challenges and threats from climate change but failing to plan sustainably now risks our entire existence in the future. Choosing to study or work at an HBCU used to be the only choice that many black scholars had — no longer the only choice, it is now the first choice for many. Those making that choice deserve to enter institutions that are ready to move forward in the 21st century with strong infrastructure and an understanding of the challenges ahead.  

Mila S. Turner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Florida A&M University and a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project, in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Tags Alma Adams Climate change climate impacts Environment HBCU IPCC Joe Biden Mila S. Turner Sustainability Tim Scott
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