State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Academics and Activism: Where Global Warming and Racism Meet

student photos from Zoom call
Seminar organizers (clockwise from top left) Clara Chang, Lauren Moseley, Kailani Acosta, Anna Barth, Roger Creel, and Elizabeth Case.

While racial injustice and systemic inequality have thousands taking to the streets in protest, a cadre of Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES) graduate students have taken another kind of action to stand up against racism. They proposed a course designed to surface the climate crisis and its disproportionate consequences for Black and Brown people. The result is the Seminar in Race, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice, which will convene online this fall and will deeply explore where natural resource exploitation, global warming, racial injustice, and the genocide of Indigenous people meet.

Atmospheric scientist Mingfang Ting and marine geophysicist Maya Tolstoy, both based at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will teach the course, but the same group of students that suggested the topic—Kailani Acosta, Elizabeth Case, Lauren Moseley, Roger Creel, Anna Barth, and Clara Chang—were also instrumental in designing the course. We spoke to three of the students to get a sense of their vision.

How did the idea for the course come about?

Lauren Moseley: In early June, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a group of DEES graduate students began discussing the gaps in our departmental curricula. Our department excels at teaching hard science, but the students felt that we often overlook broader implications—including how racism is both entrenched in the history of earth science and perpetuated by climate change. We organized this seminar as a means of expanding the scope of DEES curricula to encompass environmental justice and allow students to complete course credits for engaging in these much-needed discussions.

What do you hope to accomplish by offering the course?

Clara Chang: This will provide an academic forum for the Lamont community to more broadly consider the intersectionality of their research with social justice. It is really valuable to bring together people with a lot of different perspectives who might not otherwise be thinking about these issues.

Kailani Acosta: As geoscientists, we don’t often see our research in social contexts. It’s imperative to connect our scientific research to the people and places that are directly and indirectly affected. This course will offer the space and background to understand the broader social and cultural aspects of the environment and climate change.

How important is it to expand understanding around diversity issues of environmental justice?

Clara Chang: Environmental justice and diversity are deeply intertwined. When discussing issues such as pollution, or climate change, it is incredibly important to recognize that these issues disproportionately affect marginalized communities and communities of color.

Kailani Acosta: Underlying fundamental inequalities of race, gender and class are exacerbated by environmental issues and climate change. These communities and people are often disproportionately impacted first and worst and have the least amount of leverage to change the situation.

What are some of the most pressing of these issues?

Clara Chang: Extreme events (extreme heat, fires, storms, flooding); air and water pollution; and sea level rise.

What should students who take this course expect? Do you anticipate this course will go a long way toward shifting attitudes and beliefs?

Clara Chang: We will cover a range of interesting and interdisciplinary topics ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan; the historical Seneca Village excavation in Central Park; and Indigenous rights at Standing Rock. We will discuss environmental racism in New York City. We will zoom out in an international view, and discuss global efforts for adaptation following the Paris agreement. It should be a dynamic, eclectic, and thought-provoking experience.

Why is it important for future research leaders to take this course?

Lauren Moseley: The geosciences have a well-established whiteness problem––and this can whitewash the history that students are exposed to. This is particularly important to consider when acknowledging that American environmentalism has a deeply racist history. It is critical to better understand this past to best position ourselves to address climate and environmental injustices and dismantle the white supremacist structures which perpetuate these injustices. With the addition of this course, we aim to equip the next generation of geoscientists with the historical foundation necessary to make our field––and the work we do––more equitable and just for all.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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