Environmental Challenges and Higher Education

Hispanic Community May 2023 PREMIUM
It is essential that higher education institutions prioritize the connection between equity, economic development, climate crisis, and environmental challenges in their academic programs to address equity and environmental disparities.

Written by Audeliz Matías, Ph.D.

Communities worldwide are facing unprecedented environmental and economic challenges. To be prepared for the future, higher education must play a vital role in equipping students with the agency needed to become responsible and engaged citizens. Now more than ever, institutions need to prioritize the connection between equity, economic development, climate crisis, and environmental challenges in their academic programs. Moreover, improving diversity and inclusion in environment-related STEM fields is crucial. As discussed below, higher education can be a platform to address environmental challenges and racial disparities.

STEM Careers and the Environment

The U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce is a driving force behind important contributions to solving current and future environmental challenges. Recent data published on diversity and STEM by the National Science Foundation (NSF) shows that representation of different groups based on sex, race or ethnicity, and disability status varies within the STEM workforce. Black and Hispanic students are less likely to earn STEM degrees and they continue to make up a lower share of the STEM workforce. The workforce grew between 2011 and 2021 for all groups; however, fewer women (18%) than men (29%) worked in STEM occupations and Black workers represented only 18% of the total STEM workforce. As pointed out by the Pew Research Center, the gap in workforce representation is especially large for Hispanics; they make up just 8% of all STEM workers.

Additionally, Hispanic students remain underrepresented in environment-related fields relative to all other STEM disciplines. Nonetheless, there has been significant overall progress in the share of STEM degrees earned by Hispanic students over the last decade. By field, the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by Hispanic students in the physical and earth sciences doubled, increasing from 7.0% in 2011 to 14.1% in 2021. Although women earned more than half of the degrees in agricultural and biological sciences during this period, they are still underrepresented in physical and earth sciences at all degree levels.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of environmental scientists and specialists in the next decade is projected to grow five percent, with over 7,000 new openings expected on average every year. Although the number of new jobs in this area is projected to be small relative to other areas, occupations related to helping the environment (“green” jobs) will have the fastest employment growth in this field. STEM careers focused on the environment can lead to a rewarding profession by supporting individual and social wellbeing. They offer an opportunity to help reduce the effects of climate change, improve public health, shape policy, and boost the economy. Environmental challenges will always be about more than just the natural world.

Racial Disparities and Environmental Challenges

The lack of diversity in the environmental sector may influence which groups’ perspectives get prioritized and contribute to the marginalization of certain populations in environmental advocacy and policymaking. Researchers have uncovered stark disparities between White Americans and historically marginalized racial groups across nearly all categories of environmental pollution. Blacks and Hispanics, on average, bear a “pollution burden” relative to the exposure caused by their actions. There is overwhelming evidence that people of color in the U.S. are disproportionately exposed to harmful air pollutants, water contaminants, and toxic waste. Neighborhoods once shaped by discriminatory housing policies have more pavement, fewer trees, and higher average temperatures. Unequal access to a clean environment and basic environmental resources creates racial disparities that affect mortality rates and public health.

Environmental and racial disparities also mean that the people most at risk from climate change have the fewest resources to cope. An increase in natural disasters is the most noticeable effect of the environmental collapse. Low-income and marginalized communities are a significant fraction of the population living in coastal communities in the U.S. and globally and are at the greatest risk from sea level rise. Consequently, these groups are more likely to suffer the effects of natural disasters such as hurricanes due to inadequate infrastructure, absence of or inadequate property insurance, and lack of technology to keep them abreast of immediate danger. For example, hurricane Katrina devastated many communities of color in New Orleans in 2005, becoming a tragic story of environmental injustice with long lasting effects. In 2017, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria brought widespread social and environmental devastation to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Communities do not exist in isolation.

Role of Higher Education in Promoting Environmental Equity

We have been seeing rapid changes in fundamental aspects of the educational landscape, particularly as higher education adapts to the challenges caused by the recent pandemic. There is much ongoing debate about the role and place of higher education in society. Overall, the environmental sector is a highly promising and rewarding field. However, to support the expected demand in this sector, STEM educators must consider how their academic programs support a commitment to building a positive and inclusive society. The scientific experience cannot be separated from our identities, and how differences in social position and power shape access in society. Millions of Americans live in communities with high levels of pollution and disaster vulnerability. Addressing environmental destabilization by ongoing climate disruption demands transformative changes and urgent action at all levels of society, including higher education.

It’s imperative to understand societies and the diverse ways that people cause, are affected by, and seek to solve environmental challenges. The 2021 interim report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education (ICFE) calls for an urgent rethinking of education to move toward a new approach that integrates ways of relating to Earth and student agency. This recognition considers the trajectory of higher education in the coming years in the context of individual and collective well-being, with the aim of building a healthy and prosperous society. In short, it’s clear that higher education should not only equip students with real-world skills but also address many of the disparities in social equity and environmental issues.

About the Author

Audeliz Matías, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor to the Provost and Associate Professor at Empire State University and AAHHE member. She previously served as interim Chief Diversity Officer. She earned her Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from Northwestern University, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Geology from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.

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