The following challenges and opportunities were identified by members of Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Network and University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) during our Solutions-Oriented Live Virtual Exchanges (SOLVE) dialogues. These peer-to-peer interactions focused on the intersections of racial and climate justice within a higher education context and established a new community of practice among Climate Leadership Network signatories and UC3 members around the pursuit of climate justice.


Question: What does climate injustice and racial injustice look like at your campus and in your broader community?

History of racism and climate injustice: Like other institutions, colleges and universities may have historically profited from racism, upheld white supremacy, taken land from indigenous peoples, displaced communities, and/or contributed to the unfair distribution of benefits and damages related to climate change. Addressing this history and the role that higher education institutions may have played in contributing to racial inequity and climate injustice remain important challenges.

University-community relations: Colleges and universities may also have complicated and/or fraught relationships with their surrounding communities. Faculty, staff, and students may not be fully aware of – or understand – these relationships (or lack there of), and as a result, they may need to work to establish lasting partnerships and foster trust within the community. The messaging and language used by higher education institutions to communicate about climate with the surrounding community is of critical importance, as is recognizing when new relationships need to be fostered with the community where existing/previous relationships have failed.

Institutional silos and lack of resources and bandwidth: Institutional silos, lack of resources and bandwidth can be common roadblocks at colleges and universities to implementing the kind of actions needed to address racial and climate justice issues. Where this is the case, gaps need to be bridged to foster collaboration and partnership, and racial and climate justice efforts need to be prioritized across institutions of higher education to affect meaningful and much-needed change.

Diversify the climate action work on campus: People of color are not always well represented in groups working on climate action. Diversifying the climate leadership and student participation can be an important step in breaking down the unfortunate barriers that can exist in trying to engage a broader range of people in addressing the issue of climate change in the community.


Question: Recognizing that climate change and racial injustice share roots and have to be addressed together, what can you do to meaningfully and intentionally address these issues at your campus? 

Become an ally and utilize existing channels/resources: Rather than (1) reaching out directly to individual persons of color on campus, (2) working in a silo on racial and climate justice initiatives, or (3) abandoning action in the face of traditional roadblocks tied to limited resources or lack of bandwidth, campus sustainability officers or climate professionals should consider: 

(a) becoming members of the Chancellor’s/President’s Council on Diversity (should such a council exist) and look for ways to integrate existing racial and climate justice efforts on campus where appropriate and

(b) reaching out to existing DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) offices/staff to find ways to work together on common initiatives and share resources

Development/updating of climate action plans (CAPs) and strategies: The development of new CAPs, CAP updates, or climate strategies provide an opportunity to draw clear linkages between racial and climate justice, and put in place plans that ensure equity is at the center of campus climate action. For examples, please visit our climate justice case study page. 

Promote student leadership and educate: Some colleges and universities are creating paid student intern positions within existing climate-related groups (e.g., “eco-rep” teams) focused on justice, while others are establishing opportunities that encourage faculty, staff, and students to educate themselves on issues of racial and climate justice through facilitated dialogues, events, etc. on campus (e.g., Environmental Justice Guide). The key is to convert dialogue and education into meaningful and lasting action. 

Re-evaluate hiring practices: Look for opportunities to diversify climate leadership on campus by encouraging people of color and other traditionally underrepresented groups to apply for climate-related and sustainability jobs on campus. It may also be important to look at where and how these jobs are being posted and marketed to avoid exclusionary hiring practices. 

For more information about the Solutions-Oriented Live Virtual Exchanges (SOLVE) dialogue series click here

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Header Photo Credit: Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash