Institutions are beginning to see the importance of engaging all groups in
the environmental movement
If humans continue burning fossil fuels at the current rate, the Earth’s temperature is likely to rise upwards of 3.6 degrees by 2100 — indicating, according to some scientists, that we are even farther down the path to irreversible climate change than previously thought.
This figure is the result of two separate studies, published in the journal Nature Climate Change in late July, which each used different methods yet came to the same conclusion. Despite this knowledge, the potential for addressing climate change from a sweeping legislative or policy perspective seems unlikely due to the increasingly partisan nature of the issue. President Donald Trump has denied the existence of climate change and has supported his claim with deep cuts to research aimed at curbing its effects and a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on global climate change. All of these factors combined paint a grim picture of the future, one fraught with rising seas, mass extinctions, more wildfires and droughts, harsher tropical storms, and decreased access to fresh water.
Yet, at a time when engaging everyone in the climate change movement is more critical than ever, little is being done to involve racial and ethnic minorities in these efforts. Reaching out to this ever-increasing population could prove to be one of the most viable — not to mention equitable — ways the environmental movement can expand its reach and influence. Adam Pearson, an assistant professor of psychology at Pomona College who has researched the diversity crisis in climate science, blames the underrepresentation of people of color in environmental efforts largely on stereotypes and inaccurate assumptions.
“When we think of environmental science, we may think of someone like Al Gore or a whole slew of other prominent environmentalists who may be white and who are more likely to be male,” he says. “We may be less likely to think of someone like Mario Molina, who’s responsible for galvanizing support for international measures to combat ozone depletion.”
In fact, people of color make up no more than 16 percent of the workforce at environmental organizations, according to researcher Dorceta E. Taylor, PhD, a professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. In her report The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies, she refers to this barrier as the “green ceiling,” which she says has existed for decades. Specifically, Taylor discovered that people of color comprise just 12.4 percent of staff at non-governmental organizations (NGOs), 15.5 percent at government agencies, and 12 percent at foundations.
Not surprising is the fact that across the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, and specifically physical and life sciences classifications, minorities are most underrepresented in atmospheric and space sciences, environmental and geosciences, and conservation and forestry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. One reason for this is the dearth of students of color pursuing these fields.
According to National Science Foundation data, the distribution of bachelor’s degrees awarded to U.S. students in atmospheric sciences in 2014 varied widely based on demographic group: Whites earned 82.6 percent, Hispanics 7.6 percent, African Americans 2.6 percent, Asians 2.2 percent, American Indians or Alaska Natives 0.4 percent, and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders 0.1 percent. For earth sciences, the rates were similar.
This underrepresentation in environmental degree programs and careers, Pearson says, is largely the result of young people of color not seeing professionals in these fields who look like them, as well as the environmental movement’s placing little emphasis on the climate-related issues that most affect minority groups, such as certain health disparities. As this situation continues to perpetuate itself, Pearson says it leads to gross misperceptions.
“If you look at who populates environmental organizations, you might think that certain groups are more concerned about environmental issues than others. … That’s a longstanding belief, a myth that has been held inside and outside of mainstream environmental organizations, and within academia too,” he says. “But the data just don’t bear that out. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.”
A 2008 survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which examined support for climate change and energy policies among different racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., found that in many cases, minorities were equally if not more supportive of these measures. Hispanics and African Americans were often the strongest supporters of such policies even if they incurred greater costs as a result. Following the release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation to label carbon dioxide a pollutant, 89 percent of African Americans were the most likely to somewhat or strongly support this action, while Hispanics were the most likely to strongly support it (40 percent). Overall, 80 percent of Americans supported the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
Pearson believes that colleges and universities have a larger role to play in solving the diversity crisis in climate science. Not only should they be doing more to recruit students of color to environmental science fields, but also to discuss the varied impacts of climate change on different groups, he says. “[They need to be] thinking about diversity as an aspect of sustainability — not as something that is separate, but as something that’s fundamental,” he says. “You can’t separate out race, economics, and health and income disparities from [how] you think about or describe environmental or sustainability challenges. They’re all connected.”
Leadership for Sustainability
In the Master of Science in Leadership for Sustainability (MSLS) degree program at the University of Vermont (UVM), acknowledging the interconnectedness of factors such as diversity, power, privilege, and environmental perspectives is a key component of the curriculum. With a focus on creating conditions for all life to flourish, the program strives to prepare its graduates to do the same.
[Above: Xavier Brown, a student in UVM’s Master of Science in Leadership for Sustainability program]
“Sustainability for us is the idea of creating conditions for all life to thrive over the long haul. To us, that’s fundamentally an environmental endeavor as well as a social endeavor,” says Matt Kolan, PhD, director of the program and a senior lecturer in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at UVM. “We believe that to do this effectively requires building reciprocal relationships across all forms of difference and removing and unlearning ideological systems and structures of domination and colonization that continue to perpetuate disparities across cultural identities. Because, over the long haul, our well-being and survival as a species depend on it.”
MSLS is a two-year, low-residency program designed for mid-career professionals from across the country. Through a blend of residential intensives, interactive online courses, professional coaching, and access to a network of professional affiliates, Kolan and his colleagues “attempt to reorganize and rethink leadership and change-making efforts across environmental and social fields,” he says. The focus is not on students’ studying other cultures and their relationship to the Earth, but instead, learning about and developing leadership skills that enable them to work across difference.
“The goal isn’t necessarily to understand and become literate in [different] cultures. Our focus is on the mindsets, heart sets, and skill sets that allow us to be in authentic and reciprocal relationships across those differences,” explains Kolan. “We spend a lot of time talking about the interpersonal skills that are required for us to navigate those power and privilege dynamics … even when there are fundamental differences in belief systems, cosmologies, and worldviews.”
He says that too often, change-making initiatives have unknowingly perpetuated forms of inequity. “In cleaning up a waterway or in conserving large tracts of land — which has the potential to really enhance biodiversity in an area — those initiatives sometimes perpetuate systemic racism and classism,” says Kolan. “A big part of [MSLS’s] underlying philosophy is the idea that no effort to restore healthy water, healthy food systems, or clean air will ever be successful if it is not at the same time addressing issues of systemic inequity.”
In the first year of the program, students participate in three weeklong residential intensives — in Vermont, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay area — which cover key concepts and ways to implement those. “We [examine] practices for solidarity and relational leadership [methods] that aren’t just rooted in white male ideas of leadership, but in black, indigenous, feminist, and queer leadership practices and approaches,” says Kolan. “We spend time visiting organizations that are doing work at the intersection of environment and social change … to amplify the voices of those who are most impacted by the change-making efforts that are occurring.”
The intensives are complemented by a series of online courses that allow students to explore and experiment with newly learned leadership practices. “As much as possible, the curriculum is intended to be immediately applicable to the work people are doing in their home communities,” Kolan says.
In the second year, students take on a project with a community partner; these efforts have involved students launching nonprofit organizations, running for state government, and creating social change initiatives, among others. For Xavier Brown, a student in MSLS’s first cohort, the project portion has allowed him to dedicate more time to his nonprofit, Soilful City, which he started in Washington, D.C., in 2015. With a “deep emphasis on reconnecting black folks and people of African descent back to the Earth,” the organization has hosted workshops and trainings related to urban agriculture and will soon introduce a line of locally grown salsas.
Kolan and MSLS Program Specialist Emil Tsao say they believe that diversity is not just important in the curriculum but also in the students. And although they don’t actively try to recruit any specific groups to the program, they hope that its unique focus by nature attracts people from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, industries, and professional experiences. According to Kolan, 43 percent of the incoming cohort identifies as people of color, and they come with all types and lengths of career experiences. “Having that diversity of professional backgrounds adds to the [cohort’s] ability to think more intersectionally,” says Tsao.
For Brown, this exposure to and discussions of diverse backgrounds and perspectives is what makes UVM’s program so powerful.
“I’m black, so to understand that a lot of the [information] you get in school is from a very white, Western perspective, it kind of shapes your worldview,” Brown says. “To be able to step out of that context, to read something from a woman [from Calcutta] or a Native American woman who’s trying to get back to her indigenous roots and learning that the world is bigger than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the Western perspective of the world, I think is very important.”
The Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP) at the University of Washington (UW) recognizes that you don’t have to be a “natural scientist” to engage in environmental and conservation efforts, says Brett Ramey, director of the program.
“Even though we are primarily conservation-based, there are a number of ways people can plug into this work,” he says. “In fact, increasingly we are seeing the need to have multiple lenses looking at the way we engage with land and water so that we can most effectively address all of the challenges we face. That does of course include natural sciences, but it also includes filmmakers, artists, and social scientists.”
Beyond trying to increase diversity in conservation, DDCSP places great emphasis on engaging all segments of the U.S. population, which it hopes to do by seeking participants with a range of hobbies, interests, and skills. In order to expand the environmental movement’s reach — and DDCSP’s — Ramey says they must “find ways to convey critical information about climate change that’s accessible to as many audiences as possible to get as much support and buy-in for solutions.”
“Film ends up being a place for that, photo ends up being a place for that, creating brochures and other informational media in different languages — those are the kinds of things we need to do,” he says, adding that UW’s recruitment efforts have involved promoting DDCSP through attendance at national conferences and encouraging colleagues across the country to share information about the program with their students.
Designed as an eight-week, two-summer undergraduate immersive learning experience, DDCSP explores “conservation across climate, water, food, and ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest,” according to the program’s website. During the first summer, called Classroom-in-the-Field, students — accompanied by instructors and conservation professionals — explore different landscapes in both urban and rural settings to learn about conservation practices and engage in a variety of projects.
This summer, Ramey says participants spent one day exploring tide pools and learning about oyster farming; on another day, they visited waterways around Seattle. “That meant we were seeing places that had been dramatically altered and were thinking about what that meant [for] not only the displacement of salmon, but also for human communities over time,” he explains.
Students spend the second summer as interns on Conservation Practice Teams — an experience designed to help them deepen their knowledge and skills, build professional networks, and determine their career path. Working with professionals at government agencies, community organizations, or NGOs, they engage in a research project with several of their peers and mentors. Projects focus on one of three areas: biodiversity conservation, cultural identity, or environmental justice. In the past, topics have included the biological impacts of climate change on mountain ecosystems, hosted by UW’s Department of Biology; Moses Prairie restoration, hosted by the Quinault Indian Nation; and stories of human and ecological adaptation from the immigrant and refugee perspective.
Ramey says that often, students come in with more knowledge of conservation practices than they realized. “[We’ve had students say,] ‘Wow, what I was learning from my abuela, what I was learning from my aunts and uncles about how we’ve lived on the land, … we were enacting conservation — only we didn’t call it that. It was just a way of life,” Ramey says, adding that DDCSP helps students extract and use the knowledge and skills they already possess.
Diversity to Drive Change
If we are going to make significant gains as a nation toward curbing climate change and preserving the environment, engaging all underrepresented groups in these efforts is imperative, according to Pearson, who has also studied political polarization around climate change.
“If you look at for whom the issue of climate change is most politically polarized, what you find is that it’s not [the same] across all groups in the U.S. It is actually most polarized for more educated, upper-income white Americans,” he explains. “For non-whites or less-educated lower-income groups, you see very little evidence of polarization.”
From a health and equity perspective, Kolan believes social justice and environmental efforts cannot be thought of as separate, as the people most affected by climate change don’t have a seat at the table. “[We can no] longer separate the health of people and the health of the environment,” says Kolan. “The environmental movement is filled with people who have been the least impacted by some of these structural inequities.”
He admits, however, that a cultural shift is beginning to take place. “What I think we’re seeing is more and more people becoming aware of the importance of addressing these issues in ways we’ve never seen before,” he says.
Indeed, beyond colleges like UVM and UW attempting to recruit diverse communities to environmental fields while working to overcome inequities, others are beginning to see the value in this work as well. Following Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, hundreds of cities, states, companies, and higher education institutions came together to sign an open letter to the international community expressing their continued support of efforts to curb climate change. “In the absence of leadership from Washington, [we] will pursue ambitious climate goals,” the letter states, “working together to take forceful action and to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing emissions.”
It’s no secret that diverse teams tend to produce the most creative and effective solutions. As Brown points out, ecosystems lacking in diversity experience more problems than those rich with it. In his words, “diversity is natural,” and if we continue down the same, homogeneous path, he says, we’ll only get the same troubling results.
“We need perspectives from every angle possible, from every type of worldview, from every type of religious and spiritual background, and gender orientation,” says Brown. “Because everybody is oriented to the Earth differently, so [our] ideas to [curb] climate change are going to manifest themselves differently.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.