Climate change and environmental justice experts, students, researchers, and community members gathered for the Seventh Annual HBCU Climate Change Conference on November 13–16, 2019, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Leaders, students, and residents from across the country discussed the impacts of climate change, climate justice, community resilience, and other climate change topics such as green opportunities and global climate action. As a first-time attendee, I was thrilled to hear presentations from some of the founding individuals who have spearheaded the climate justice and environmental justice movements. It was fascinating to see the history of these movements come to life and learning more about the intersection of climate change, justice, and equity issues—a central theme of the conference. Moreover, I was fascinated by the work done by the student researchers from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) who shared their climate justice work. From addressing food insecurity in Mississippi and Afroecology to research on the connections between climate gentrification, green infrastructure, and climate adaptation. The outcomes of this conference can inform future priorities of the environmental health workforce, including climate policy development that reflects equity, strong storytelling, and advocating for environmental justice funding.
2019 HBCU Climate Change Conference held in New Orleans, LA.
The annual average global temperatures are projected to increase this century and according to Dr. Astrid Caldas of the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists, “A 1.5 to 2 degree change makes a huge difference.” Unfortunately, the temperature rise will create health consequences for millions of people, specifically groups who already face heightened risks due to socioeconomic disparities. Over 50% of the communities at risk for a climate change catastrophe have at least one census socioeconomic vulnerability. Unfortunately, we did not get here by accident. Participants shared that climate inequality is embedded in the historical systems within the U.S. Cecilia Martinez of the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy stated, “We got here by an arrangement of private business and government decisions with a racial component.” Martinez stressed the importance of including equity and justice in climate mitigation. Equity is critical—we cannot reach climate targets without a connection between the climate and climate justice movements. Moreover, climate change exacerbates existing health inequities and negative health outcomes such as heat-related death and illness, Lyme disease, water-related infections, limited food access, and respiratory illnesses. These issues increase the need for capacity within the environmental health workforce, especially since environmental health workers from local health departments are one of the only local government entities serving to protect public health.
The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform is an excellent example of organizations, communities, scientists, and government mobilizing to develop just and equitable solutions to climate change. Members of this group and others across the nation are developing equitable legislation, strategies, and action on climate change within environmental justice communities. Similarly, environmental health professionals play a role in addressing climate change and can work among environmental justice and climate change organizations to work toward change. Environmental health professionals can also disseminate information, guidelines, and tools during facility inspections and home visits.
Organizations and communities are attempting equitable climate solutions through community outreach, community-based science, and incorporating environmental justice in climate change mitigation policy. Another method used to advance environmental and climate justice is storytelling. Dr. Dorcetta Taylor, professor at the University of Michigan, stressed the need for stronger storytelling, “We need to document our deliverables better to tell our own stories.” Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, seconded this notion in his empowering message to promote communities to thrive. Environmental justice communities can thrive by “not allowing people to frame to the narrative for [them].” Environmental justice communities can take ownership of their narrative and direct their media.
This conference is an example of the work done in environmental justice communities that should be shared for the world to experience. Environmental health workers are on the front line of these communities and see the impacts of climate change firsthand. Local health departments have deep connections to these communities that are impacted by climate change and can contribute to the stories of these impacted communities. Local health departments and the environmental health workforce can integrate climate change storytelling into routine communications while empowering community members to participate in decisions around climate change response. For example, Dr. Tony Reames from the University of Michigan highlighted the energy injustices in Detroit and Kansas City and the community-based approaches to combat these injustices. While White households consume more energy than any other race, African Americans and Hispanics consume more energy per square foot due to their houses being more energy-inefficient compared to higher-income areas. Dr. Reames collaborates with the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, which aims to involve communities to participate in energy decision making in Michigan. This research and community project, among many others, is a story highlighted in a manner that resonates with the public, funders, and decision makers to promote increased funding for climate justice projects.
Dr. Dorcetta Taylor provided an overview of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform.
Dr. Dorcetta Taylor explained that there is a significant need for increased environmental justice funding to support equitable climate solutions. Climate justice funding is decreasing and most of the funding does not go toward initiatives spearheaded by people of color. Dr. Taylor added that from 2015–2017, $1.2 million in funding was granted to climate organizations with a person of color as the top executive while $154 million was awarded to climate organizations with a White person as the senior executive. Dr. Taylor shared several strategies to increase funding for environmental justice organizations and encouraged environmental justice organizations to ask for more money. Seeking multiple grants, having a sound understanding of the foundation and its program officer, and fine tuning your pitch were other strategies to diversify and increase funding pools. Dr. Taylor concluded her presentation with a call to action for foundations—diversify your staff. The increased funding of climate and environmental justice projects can help further mitigate the climate impacts for vulnerable communities.
Though local health departments are limited in capacity and funding to address climate change, health departments can be creative in locating resources to help mobilize community partners and build work on climate change. The National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is offering demonstration awards to support local, territorial, state, and tribal government health agencies that use a Health in All Policies (HiAP) framework to influence the social determinants of health or those who work with multisector partners to address climate change.
As the conference wrapped up, Dr. Earthea Nance from Texas Southern University stated that African American children are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than White children, which is often exacerbated by the effects of climate change such as poor air quality and extreme heat. There is something to be said about the millions of vulnerable groups who are disproportionately being affected by the health threats of climate change. Each day we witness the worsening of climate-related disasters such as wildfires, extreme heat and precipitation, and more powerful hurricanes. Moreover, there is something notable about the strength and resilience of these communities that collaboratively restore their communities after facing a climate-related disaster. Dr. Sharon Beard of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (and a NEHA member) presented on the environmental career worker training program and community emergency response program. These types of worker training programs provide community members, environmental health workers, healthcare employees, first responders, and other occupations the training and tools needed to clean up debris, address hazardous matters, and restore their communities.
Dr. Sharon Beard of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences presented on the environmental career worker training program and the benefit of targeting minority and unskilled workers for the program.
This conference drove a call to action for equity to be at the center of climate action. Additionally, intense and impactful storytelling is a constant need for environmental justice communities. Furthermore, the conference spotlighted the need for increased funding for green infrastructure, transportation, monitoring, research, and worker training, among other things, to help address the environmental injustices. The environmental health workforce is integrated into each aspect of advancing environmental health and health equity as it relates to climate change. Restaurant, food, air quality, water, and other facility inspectors play a role in addressing climate change. From addressing food insecurity and waste, water contamination, and vector control, the environmental health workforce will increasingly need to work alongside environmental justice communities to address climate change and its effect on our health.
I look forward to hearing the successes of climate justice progress at the 8th annual conference next year.
Ayana Jones is a Project Coordinator in NEHA’s Program & Partnership Development department in Washington D.C.
She works on vector control and water-related projects at NEHA.