Will HBCUs shed their fossil fuel ties?
6.16.2016 / By Alexa B. White
Beginning in the mid-1990’s, various nations began holding a series of negotiations in order to jumpstart a mass reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The most recent of these negotiations was the United Nation’s Conference of the Parties 21 (COP21), held in Paris this past December. Nearly 200 countries developed the Paris Agreement which would confirm the commitment to limit global climate change to less than two degrees Celsius compared to pre-Industrial levels, primarily targeting a transition from a fossil-fuel reliance to clean energy.
In advance of COP21, the White House launched the American Campuses Act on Climate initiative (ACAC) to reign in support from the higher education community during the international climate negotiations. More than 300 colleges and universities, which included several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), committed to the American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge to accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy and continue climate change action and clean energy initiatives. The impact of climate change on African American communities is a legitimate concern for HBCUs, given their role in and proximity to these communities.
According to Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People, a report released by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 78 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. This thirty-mile radius is within the zone of maximum exposure to pollutants. Those living within this zone are at risk for various ailments such as heart disease and birth defects. The report states that African-Americans are far less well prepared for natural disasters and that they are more likely to be displaced and criminalized as a result.
So far, 28 colleges and universities worldwide have divested or committed to divestment – getting rid of stocks, bonds and investment funds – from fossil fuel companies in order to impact climate change. In the United States, nine of the schools that have fulfilled their divestment pledges joined the fast-growing divestment movement as early as 2011; this group mostly involves small New England and California colleges that are overseeing relatively modest endowments from fossil fuel corporations.
Divestment targets fossil fuel industries for its culpability in climate change and this may conflict with longstanding relationships HBCUs have with fossil fuel companies and initiatives.
In 1981, the Exxon Education Foundation and Pepsico Inc. awarded six HBCUs multiyear grants amounting to $1 million and $1.8 million, respectively. In 2013, five HBCU’s received grants ranging from $189,000 to nearly $1 million dollars for over a three-year period from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).
The funding went toward projects for the development of new technologies that use fossil fuels in an “environmentally friendly, low-cost and reliable manner,” according to the news release from NETL. “By involving these professors and students in fossil energy development projects, the Energy Department hopes to maintain and upgrade education, training, and research capabilities at our minority colleges and universities in science, engineering, and technical management.”
Although a complete divestment from fossil fuels presents the potential for an immediate transition from fossil fuels in surrounding HBCU communities, how and if HBCUs participate in the movement to divest remains to be seen.
Alexa B. White is a biology major at Howard University and an HBSciU Science Writing Fellow
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