HBCU students, faculty push for an urgent need for climate action

New Orleans (AP) – Both joy and frustration are in the air in New Orleans at the HBCU Climate Change Conference this week, as environmental and climate advocates and researchers from across the United States push for urgent climate action and pollution cleanup in poor communities and communities of color.

The conference, which runs until Saturday, has featured top officials and key advisers in the Biden administration, environmental and climate justice advocates from across the southeastern United States, and faculties and students from the country’s historic black colleges and universities sharing their research.

It was the conference’s eighth convocation and the first since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, people concerned with climate and environmental justice have moved into positions of power in the Biden administration, which created the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council ever and made strong promises to clean up pollution and take climate action in disadvantaged areas. community. Bezos Earth Fund and other new philanthropy channel money to environmental and climate justice groups.

Many years of leadership, Beverly Wright and Robert Bullard, co-founders and members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, expressed enthusiasm for the changes.

“The movement has changed,” said Wright, who is also director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “It’s resources for the first time at a level higher than it’s ever been before.” For the first time in decades, organizations like hers have been able to compensate grassroots organizations for community-based research, she said.

But they and others present also expressed disappointment at the lack of progress with actual pollution cleanup, saying that climate change is now adding new damage to disadvantaged communities, not to mention the need to prevent the damage from happening in the first place.

“We struggle with old fights, fights (we thought), we won. And now we are fighting against them again. And that’s why we need you young people. This is your fight forward, Wright said.

This retrospective was reinforced as one of the main themes of this year’s conference was reflection on the 50 years since the adoption of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency two years earlier.

Some participants have been working to purify the water and air in their communities for two and even three generations. Pioneers said there is greater awareness and awareness of issues such as water, air, renewable energy, food access and flood protection for their communities, but they have seen little action on the spot on these issues.

Wright said at a community forum to kick off the conference Wednesday night that when she began performing environmentally sound work back in 1990, there were 132 petrochemical facilities along the 85-mile corridor from New Orleans to Baton Rouge known by some as Cancer Alley. Now there are two dozen more.

“We live in a state that for years has abdicated its environmental protection obligations” with respect to the chemical manufacturing industry, she said.

The HBCU Climate Change Conference is also traditionally a place for local organizations to share their data and young researchers to present their studies. The main themes of this research this year were the tracing of air pollution in St. James and St. John Parishes of Louisiana, as well as Houston; building flood protection in the port cities of Gulfport, Mississippi and New Orleans and measuring the cumulative impact of pollution on environmental health in color communities throughout the United States.

Reggie Sylvestine, a member of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in Texas who works with fire prevention and management, was at the conference for the first time, saying what he learned was eye-opening.

“I’m learning that all the influences are mainly on (other) minority communities,” Sylestine said. “And we are being left out of getting the help we need to remedy these problems.”

Another first-time participant, Karis Thomas, a psychology student at Howard University, said she has been inspired to take on a leadership role by seeing other students at the conference and seeing the research they are doing.

“What I really got out of this conference is student activism and seeing what’s new that comes in terms of taking responsibility” in a way that is not dependent on government or corporate support, she said. “Because we’ve seen this work take decades, it takes years, and we do not have years.”


Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.


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