Higher education needs a new mission. What about climate justice?
Climate justice addresses the urgency of the climate crisis by prioritizing transformative social and economic change to promote equity and redistribute resources. Those least responsible for climate change have the least resources to face its impacts, and most climate policies to date have been like Massachusetts’ solar incentives that subsidized renewable energy to suburban single-family homes. In fact, we recognize that it has disproportionately benefited the privileged. , wealthy and white communities. Rather than narrowly focusing on technologies to “fix” the climate, climate justice prioritizes adaptation investments that all communities need for healthy living. Access to housing, food, healthcare, good jobs, transportation and education. This includes investments to end our dependence on fossil fuels, not only to reduce carbon emissions, but also to alleviate the pollution and other health burdens plaguing low-income households.
A commitment to climate justice would entail major changes in higher education, as climate justice prioritizes the most vulnerable members of society and disrupts a system that concentrates wealth and power in the elite. It will change what is taught on campus, what is studied, and how universities are managed and funded.
Despite renewed commitments to social and racial justice on campus in 2020, the talk hasn’t translated into transformative action. The relationship between racism and climate injustice is not usually taught outside environmental studies courses. A commitment to climate justice will redirect all degree programs toward public good impact, rather than directing students toward individual economic success. Colleges and universities committed to climate justice can ensure that all students, regardless of major, gain practical experience in civic responsibility and understand their growing vulnerability.
In addition to preparing students to advance climate justice, schools can demonstrate leadership by engaging in non-exploitative work available to people in historically marginalized communities. This provides a living wage and equal benefits for all campus workers, including food service, administrative, administrative, and educational staff. The university can also commit to energy innovations that end dependence on fossil fuels on and off campus, and invest in renewable projects with and for the community.
Climate justice also requires investments in social innovation that strengthen community access to health care and sustain long-term partnerships. For example, community health initiatives can connect university resources and students to medically underserved neighbors. Universities can expand sustainable local or fair trade sourcing policies, strengthen community-supported agriculture, and better support trade unions. Higher education institutions can also help pioneer cooperative business models, community-owned infrastructure and non-extractive finance. This includes interest-free loans for low-income local families to purchase efficient, renewable energy homes.
Addressing climate justice will transform the governance of higher education. Funds can be sold from fossil fuel companies. Eliminate the impact of fossil fuels on your board and research funding.
Combined donations from Boston and Cambridge Universities will exceed $90 billion in 2021, according to data compiled by the National Association of Colleges and University Business Officers. This institutional wealth and its earnings are typically kept on campus and invested in school infrastructure, faculty, and students. But as the region’s climate vulnerability worsens, rather than becoming an increasingly remote island of privilege, schools will use this money to provide shade and cooling to urban areas and reduce food and water insecurity. , innovating housing policies to break away from gentrification.
Some smaller schools are struggling financially, but thriving universities are centers of resource concentration. Through investments, real estate, tax breaks, and public funding, many large universities accumulate financial and physical capital at the expense of their surrounding communities. Campus expansion is ravaging some communities by displacing local families and increasing housing costs. A university focused on financial success concentrates wealth and power for itself and its corporate partners, but that prosperity does not trickle down to local disadvantaged communities. Universities can reverse this pattern by committing to climate justice and investing in their communities accordingly.
In the Boston area, schools have a particularly exciting opportunity to participate in local and state climate justice initiatives. As part of the Green New Deal plan, Mayor Michelle Wu is aiming for a holistic investment in health, housing, green jobs, education and transportation. With our legislature and perhaps our next governor committing to climate and equity, Massachusetts will be well positioned to lead on climate justice. It’s an ideal time for academic institutions to join the resource.
Boston University, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are strong presidential-level advocates for integrated university-wide climate action. Northeastern is updating its climate action plan with a climate justice lens. UMass Boston hosts the Northeast Climate Justice Research Collaborative. Harvard just received a donation to its new Climate and Sustainability Institute, and BU and Harvard have committed to abandoning investments from fossil fuels. But each of these institutions continues to accept fossil fuel research funding, push their neighbors out of their way to expand landholdings, and focus primarily on technological “solutions” rather than urgently needed social and economic transformations. We are promoting.
Without action for change, we will continue to face worsening inequities that increase our vulnerability to increasingly harmful climate impacts. But universities are uniquely positioned to promote a fairer and healthier future. Climate justice is an opportunity, not a cost, for academic institutions. As many question the high cost of higher education, now is the time for our institutions to demonstrate their worth to society.
Alaina D. Boyle is a PhD student in the Northeastern School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Jennie C. Stephens is Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at Northeastern University and author of Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy.